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Couchepin under fire for outspoken comments

The Swiss economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, has drawn criticism for comments made about the planned reforms of the military at the weekend. It is not so much what he said as the fact that he said it which is being attacked.

The Swiss economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, has drawn criticism for comments made about the planned reforms of the military at the weekend. It is not so much what he said as the fact that he said it which is being attacked.

Couchepin argued in a newspaper article on Sunday that a new-style Swiss army, leaner and more modern, should cost less than the present one. The minister has been criticised for breaking an unwritten rule that all seven cabinet members should stand behind policies agreed on by the government, irrespective of their personal opinion.

In particular, ministers are expected to avoid commenting on policies of fellow colleagues, and Couchepin is economics and not defence minister. But Couchepin's spokesman, Robin Tickle, defended the move.

"Each federal councillor has got two hats. One as the head of a department and the other as a member of the college which decides on all matters. The only thing that is new is that it is now the subject of public debate".

However, it is Pascal Couchepin above all others who pulls matters into the public debate. This time it was defence minister Adolf Ogi, who had his feathers ruffled.

Yet since becoming a member of the federal government two years ago, Couchepin has interfered with foreign, environment, energy, transport, and social security policies - all of which are important policy fields, but strictly speaking none of his business.

Among Mr Couchepin's fiercest critics is the Social Democratic Party, whose ministers Moritz Leuenberger and Ruth Dreifuss, have had to deal with interference from Couchepin more than others. The party's spokeswoman, Ursula Dubois, sees a clear right-wing agenda behind the public comments made by Couchepin, a member of the traditionally pro-business Radical Party.

"Couchepin tries to impose the interests of business people," she said.

But Couchepin's ways are unlikely to change. People close to him say he relishes the kind of controversy that he triggered over Easter.

by Markus Haefliger


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