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Leuenberger takes over rotating Swiss presidency

Moritz Leuenberger, who is taking over the rotating post of president in 2001 (file picture: Keystone)

A Social Democrat member of the government, Moritz Leuenberger, took over the one-year rotating presidency in Switzerland on Monday.

Leuenberger, 54, who retains his post as transport, energy and communications minister in the cabinet, succeeds Adolf Ogi who held the post in 2000.

A member of the seven-member cabinet since 1995, Leuenberger also has wide political experience at a federal level and in his home canton of Zurich.

He appears popular among parliamentarians. A president-elect's confirmation by parliament is regarded as a formality, but when the federal assembly cast their ballots last month, Leuenberger's vote tally was unusually high.

To his admirers, Leuenberger is seen as a smart tactician, an intellectual, and a pragmatist within the Social Democratic Party. His critics, however, find him aloof, and point to him being a member of the Zurich elite.

In an interview with swissinfo to mark his presidential year, Leuenberger praised the idea of a rotating presidency.

"I find it an admirable system. The main advantage is that in a country with so many minorities, with so many cultures, there is one minority each year which can identify strongly with the government because the president comes from that group of people."

He also said the system of rotating posts - also present in many federal and cantonal institutions -prevents power being concentrated in too few hands, and is an instrument to counter potential corruption.

The son of a theologian, Leuenberger grew up in Biel and Basel before moving to Zurich where he trained as a lawyer. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1979, at the age of 33, and became a member of the Zurich cantonal government in 1991.

His portfolio as energy, transport and communications minister has seen him deal with a series of difficult dossiers - among them handling the nuclear power debate, and the privatisation of state-owned institutions.

In the international arena, Leuenberger's year in office will witness European Union states finally ratifying a series of bilateral, mainly trade, accords with Switzerland, and preparations for a national vote in 2002 on Switzerland joining the United Nations.

One of his tasks will be to explain to a foreign audience the outcome of a referendum in March, in which Swiss voters are likely to reject the idea of immediate negotiations on EU membership.

Joining the EU is a government goal - and discussions are expected to begin in 2004 - but it believes immediate negotiations would be premature.

Another issue at the top of the government agenda is the army. In his first speech as president on Monday, Leuenberger urged the Swiss people to put their fears aside and support the arming of Swiss soldiers on peacekeeping missions abroad.

"We do not have to see change as a risk," he said, "but as a chance to seize an opportunity."

Apart from his purely political activities, Leuenberger has been prominent in other areas.

He came to public attention when, as a lawyer, he represented the Philippines government in its attempts to retrieve assets held in Swiss banks by the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.

And he headed a parliamentary commission in 1989 investigating the security and intelligence service after it was revealed that they held hundreds of thousands of files on citizens and organisations

by Ron Popper

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