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Press criticise cabinet "consultant"

Merz, in happier days Keystone

The Swiss press have few kind words for Finance Minister, Hans-Rudolf Merz, who announced his resignation on Friday.

This content was published on August 7, 2010 - 10:14

Ridiculing him as an “eternal consultant”, most newspapers agreed that Merz failed to rise to the many challenges he and Switzerland faced during his seven-year term, including attacks on banking secrecy.

“Hans-Rudolf Merz resigns. This is good news for him, for his party and for the whole country,” read the commentary in Blick.

The tabloid newspaper said Merz, at the time of his election, was little more than a puppet of the big Swiss banks and a “defender” of banking secrecy long after it, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. Blick also accused Merz of allowing the entire country to be taken hostage after the United States charged Swiss bank UBS for aiding and abetting Americans wishing to evade taxes.

The former head of UBS, Marcel Ospel, is long gone and it’s now Merz’s turn, Blick added. “Both represented the ideology of marketplace radicalism, which has now been completely discredited.” The paper concluded that Merz’s centre-right Radical Party will benefit most from his departure from the political arena. “The Radicals can present themselves as the proud founders of modern Switzerland...and not just a country made up of crazed bankers in Zurich.”

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) was less harsh. Although criticising Merz for “underestimating the extent of the UBS crisis [giving] the impression that he had a better relationship with the bank than with his cabinet colleagues”, the NZZ praised the outgoing finance minister for presenting a 2009 federal budget that was the envy of neighbouring countries.

Deficits

“Even in difficult economic times, Switzerland, thanks partly to Merz, was able to reduce the federal deficit, and the country could well find itself in the black in 2010,” the Zurich paper said.

Der Bund, one of two paper’s in the nation’s capital, also praised Merz for reducing the deficit by SFr20 billion ($19.25 billion) and pushing through tax cuts for families and business.

But the Bern-based newspaper said this was offset by Merz’s leadership deficits: “The privatisation of Swisscom [country’s largest telecommunications operator] flopped, a move to introduce a more flexible work contract for federal personnel was put on ice and his ideas for a flat tax came out flat.”

Bund said it was “one of the ironies of history” that a former UBS man would put the wheels in motion to end banking secrecy. “What followed was a retreat in steps,” Bund concluded, saying Merz increasingly isolated himself from the other cabinet ministers, withdrew from the media spotlight and even put a stop to plans for an official biography.

Visionary?

The Geneva-based Le Temps, in its commentary, asks whether Merz’s name will one day “make it on the list of major Swiss political figures who have shaped the country thanks to their courage and visions.” The answer is clear: “He has never been a statesman.

“There was nothing in the curriculum vitae of the multilingual businessman that showed he was predestined to become a member of the government. There was nothing in his character – his good nature and manners – that helped him in the ruthless world of foreign policy.” This, Le Temps said, was a lesson Merz learned the hard way in his dealings with the Gaddafi clan while trying to negotiate the release of two Swiss businessmen from detention in Libya.

“Although Merz will leave behind a record of a finance minister who has mastered the federal budget, it would have been better if he had shown that he was up to the challenge of acting like a boss instead of an eternal consultant in a world much tougher than he was.”

Fribourg’s La Liberté was one of several Swiss papers to remind readers that Merz was elected to the cabinet along with rightwing Swiss People’s Party strongman, Christoph Blocher.

The arrival of the two (Blocher was voted out of government in 2007) led to expectations of a “shift towards neoliberalism”, La Liberté wrote.

“Seven years later, the federal finances are certainly good, but banking secrecy has been partially undone by the person who represented the best guarantee of keeping it under lock and key,” La Liberté said.

The paper agreed with Le Temps that Merz remained a consultant at heart and was therefore ill prepared for the attack on banking secrecy.

“Seven years of financial orthodoxy cannot outweigh the events of a few months when, under international pressure, Switzerland was changed.”

Dale Bechtel, swissinfo.ch

Hans-Rudolf Merz

Merz, 67, entered politics in 1997 when he joined the Senate as representative of his rural canton Appenzell Outer Rhodes.

In December 2003 he was elected to the cabinet for the centre-right Radical Party.

He held the portfolio of finance minister and also the largely ceremonial post of Swiss president in 2009.

He suffered a heart attack in September 2008 and returned to work six weeks later.

Merz had a career as a management consultant before he entered politics and is considered close to the business community.

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Swiss cabinet

Swiss cabinet ministers do not answer to their parties and there is no possibility to impeach them.

They are free to choose the moment of their resignation themselves and they enjoy considerable autonomy in the cabinet.

The cabinet members have to be confirmed in their posts every four years in the wake of parliamentary elections.

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