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Flowers, flashbulbs and a glass of Pinot

Journalists surround Switzerland’s new cabinet minister after the vote

(Keystone)

A formidable crowd was gathered outside the stately Swiss parliament building early on Wednesday morning as Micheline Calmy-Rey, the hot favourite for the job, made her entrance.

She was greeted with a round of applause from her confident supporters, but it was to take five rounds of voting to secure her victory.

Security was tighter than usual, and those who had not managed to grab a place on the galleries of the large parliamentary chamber stood little chance of getting near the action later in the day.

At 8am, shortly after the official candidates for the vacant cabinet post had entered the building, the Speaker of the House of Representatives opened the joint session of the House and the Senate.

The first business of the day: the election of a new cabinet minister, following the resignation of the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss.

Media scrum

The lobby of the House was brimming with journalists, parliamentarians and smartly dressed and wired-up security personnel.

The hall resembled a giant media centre: radio and television channels were broadcasting live programmes, cameramen tried to squeeze past each other, while party officials and journalists were huddled around television screens.

Over the next 90 minutes, tension slowly started building up along the corridors of power as the first four rounds of voting went as expected.

The favourite, Micheline Calmy-Rey, held the lead ahead of her Social Democratic Party colleague, Ruth Lüthi, and the outsider from the rightwing Swiss People's Party, Toni Bortoluzzi.

Muttering and jeers

When Bortoluzzi finally dropped out of the race after the fourth round, the People's Party president stepped up to the microphone to say that his group would abstain from voting.

His comments were met with mutters and jeers from supporters of the two women candidates who were waiting in a room downstairs.

Meanwhile, the temperature in the lobby was rising and speculation was rife among pundits about the likely winner of the day.

Would it take just one more round of voting for either of the two remaining candidates in the race to secure an absolute majority of votes? And who stood the best chance of picking up extra votes from dissident rightwing MPs: Lüthi or Calmy-Rey?

The verdict

It was gone ten o'clock when the verdict finally came through, heralding cheers for the candidate from canton Geneva.

Dozens of cameras flashed as the winner and the vanquished Lüthi, holding a bouquet of roses in her arms, put in a brief joint appearance in the lobby.

Then Calmy-Rey was escorted to the parliamentary meeting room to give a first statement. Shortly afterwards she was solemnly sworn in as the 106th cabinet member in Swiss history - but only the fourth Swiss woman to hold such a position.

Then it was time for a marathon session of interviews for the winners and losers on the day - in German, French, Italian, Romansh and occasionally even in English.

Back in the House of Representatives, parliamentarians returned to the business of appointing the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, to the ceremonial post of Swiss president for 2003. The justice minister, Ruth Metzler, was elected his deputy.

As the vote-counting continued, a group of men dressed in Genevan military uniforms from the 17th century - led by a woman - gathered in the entrance hall of the parliament building to congratulate their fellow citizen, Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Pinot or Pinot?

Nearby, waiters had begun opening dozens of bottles of red and white wine: Pinot Noir, Domaine de la République du Canton de Genève 1999; and Pinot Gris, Coteau de Lully 2000, in honour of the new cabinet member from Geneva - a traditional wine-growing region of Switzerland.

But what other bottles did they have ready, had Ruth Lüthi, the candidate from Fribourg, clinched victory over Calmy-Rey?

"I will not tell," was the only answer offered to curious reporters trying to make their voices heard over the clattering and clinking of glasses and plates.

While members of parliament, cabinet ministers, party officials and journalists mingled freely around the buffet tables, a number of spectators were still standing outside the parliament building, hoping to get a glimpse of the new cabinet minister.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser


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