Finance minister elected Swiss president for 2002

Kaspar Villiger is to take over from Moritz Leuenberger as president Keystone Archive

Parliament has elected the finance minister, Kaspar Villiger, to the largely ceremonial post of Swiss president for next year.

This content was published on December 5, 2001 - 08:21

Villiger took 183 votes out of 203 valid ballots in Wednesday's election, which is largely a formality since each of the seven members of the cabinet takes turns to be president for one year.

He will take over from the current president, Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger, at the end of the year.

The strong show of support for Villiger is widely seen as a sign of respect and appreciation for the 60-year-old politician of the Radical Party, who has been a member of the cabinet since 1989.

He served as defence minister until 1995 before he took over the Finance Ministry. Villiger is the longest-serving member of the current cabinet and he has held the position of president once before, in 1995.

There is speculation that the presidency will be the climax of Villiger's political career because he is believed to have decided to resign from the cabinet before the next general election in 2003.

Popular but lacking charisma

Villiger enjoys wide popularity in parliament and among the population. He is considered a friendly, hard working minister, willing to compromise. Critics, though, like to portray him as a typical Swiss politician, as grey as his suits and the colour of his hair.

"I see him as a very friendly person, very down-to-earth. He could be your neighbour," says Dorle Vallender, a member of parliament for the Radical Party.

One of her colleagues from the Christian Democratic Party, Lucrezia Meier-Schatz, points out Villiger's pragmatic attitude, and his lack of charisma: "He's a serious politician - a man who does not show his emotions, and who is first and foremost concerned with finances."

Born into a cigar-manufacturing dynasty, Villiger was an entrepreneur before he went into regional politics in the early 1970s.

"In a way, he still represents the medium-sized companies, and he has close ties with the banking community", says Rudolf Strahm, a member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party.

Mixed record

Luzi Stamm of the right-wing Swiss People's Party says Villiger has changed for the worse during his 12 years in the cabinet. He criticises him for being too soft as a finance minister, and failing to curb government spending.

Johann Aeschlimann, a political correspondent for the Bern-based daily "Der Bund", says Villiger has changed his political colours with his decision to bail out the collapsed national carrier, Swissair.

"Villiger started out as a neo-liberal politician who ends this year as being the one who led the biggest state intervention in the economy the country has seen in 20 years."

Presidential role

Despite the criticism, there appears to be a consensus among many politicians and political analysts that Villiger will do a good job as president.

It is a largely a ceremonial post, limited to one-year. The president has no special powers and he maintains his ministerial portfolio during his term.

Recently, though, the perception of the role of Swiss president appears to have changed. Many people expect the president to act as head of state, and to be able to express the feelings and concerns of the ordinary citizen when faced with national crises.

Villiger is considered a convincing personality with excellent aides at his side: "He has the best wordsmith available to the government," says Aeschlimann. "Therefore, I am convinced that the presidency is in very good hands."

by Urs Geiser

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