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Reshuffle hands interior ministry to Couchepin

Pascal Couchepin, Micheline Calmy-Rey and Joseph Deiss have new jobs

(Keystone)

The Swiss government has announced a cabinet reshuffle with next year's president, Pascal Couchepin, taking over the interior ministry.

The foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, replaces Couchepin at the economics ministry, and a new cabinet member, Micheline Calmy-Rey takes the mantle from Deiss.

The changes follow the resignation of Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss - a Social Democrat - who steps down on December 31.

Pascal Couchepin was known to be seeking a new portfolio, after heading up the economics ministry since 1998.

Political analyst Andreas Ladner told swissinfo the economics ministry had become less important and that could explain Couchepin's desire to move.

"Agricultural policy is not as important as it used to be in Switzerland," Ladner said. "I think that's why Couchepin wanted to leave the department."

"After four years in the economics ministry, I am looking for another challenge," Couchepin told swissinfo. "I think social policy and the debate over social welfare are very important for the future.

"This ministry also deals with higher education, which interests me very much."

He added that he would be careful not to make promises he couldn't fulfil.

Spiralling costs

The parties on the Right, of which Couchepin's Radical Party is the largest, also wanted control over health policy.

Under Dreifuss, health provision was improved, but the costs spiralled out of control, and the Right has made no secret of its desire to reform the system.

Calmy-Rey welcomed her appointment to the foreign ministry and said the fact she had studied international relations and worked with international organisations in Geneva made her well suited for the job.

"So I have a good understanding of international life and in that respect I am a natural choice for this position," she said.

Calmy-Rey had earlier expressed a preference for the interior ministry post.

Opportunity

For his part, Deiss said his move to the economics ministry was an opportunity for him to "return to my main area of expertise, since I'm an international economist".

He told swissinfo that his new post was a "good challenge for an economist to take over this portfolio at a moment when our country faces economic problems, and needs a lot of structural reforms.

Deiss denied that his move was in any way connected with next year's election.

"The allocation of portfolios is decided by the members of the cabinet alone," he said.

Attacks

But in a response to the reshuffle, the rightwing People's Party said that Deiss had been moved to a "safe" portfolio to limit the scope for attacks on his Christian Democratic party.

The Christian Democratic party is the smallest of the four in government, and is likely to face heavy pressure to give up one of its cabinet seats to the People's Party after next year's vote.

The People's Party said it believed it was only a question of time before it was allocated a second seat.

The other four cabinet ministers - Samuel Schmid, defence; Kaspar Villiger, finance; Ruth Metzler, justice and police; and Moritz Leuenberger, transport, energy, environment and communications - retain their portfolios.

The seven cabinet ministers take it in turns to be president for a year.

swissinfo

Reshuffle brief

Couchepin is the first Radical to lead the interior ministry since 1934.

He was known to be seeking a new portfolio, after heading up the economics ministry since 1998.

There has been speculation that Deiss was moved to a "safe" portfolio to limit the scope for attacks on his Christian Democratic party.

The party is likely to come under pressure after next year's elections to relinquish one of its cabinet seats to the rightwing Swiss People's Party.

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