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Schmid defends record and pleads for civility

Defence Minister Samuel Schmid said he would leave the job at the end of 2008

(Keystone)

An emotional Samuel Schmid has held a media conference to explain his decision to quit the cabinet at the end of the year.

The defence minster, battered by controversy and under attack from adversaries and former political allies, came across as both defiant and nostalgic as he looked back on his eight-year career in government.

"I am resigning for the sake of my health, family my country and the army," Schmid said in Bern on Wednesday.

He defended his eight-year record as defence minister, during which he championed wide-ranging reforms and the deployment of Swiss armed troops on peace missions abroad.

"We have won four referendums. The army has undergone its largest reformation since the formation of the parliament," the defence minister said.

"Much has been achieved, much remains to be strengthened," the former army officer added.

"For all that I have accomplished in the past years, I thank you with all my heart and wish the country the best of luck and God's blessing."

Health and emotions

The 61-year-old cabinet minister had just returned to work this week after a successful gallstone operation. On Tuesday, a SFr917 million ($777 million) army funding package he had pushed for overcame a major hurdle when it passed a vote by the security policy commission.

But in his address, Schmid made clear that over the past several months – which had included a summer in which he lost the army's two top men to scandal – the stress of the job was taking a physical and mental toll.

"They say you should learn to listen to your body," he said. "So I leave with a certain sadness but with satisfaction over what was accomplished, with thankfulness for the experience and the countless contacts with the electorate, with people inside and outside the country."

But the defence minister also hit out at Switzerland's political climate, which he said had lost a sense of collegiality over the past decade and a half.

"I stand for concordance," he said. "It has shaped our country and taken us forward. Switzerland has become a bastion of stability, prosperity and security."

"Moderation and reason are the political foundations of our society," he added.

Moderation

Schmid had, for virtually his entire cabinet career, served as a counterbalance to the dominance of the hardliners within his rightwing Swiss People's Party. It was the same party he quit on November 1 in favour of the Conservative Democratic Party.

He was joined by the justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, another moderate who was frozen out of the party after parliament chose her to replace then-party boss Christoph Blocher, who had held the same portfolio.

"Polemics and ungrounded polarisation do not belong in the political culture of this land," Schmid said toward the end of his remarks, attacking what he perceived as an ideological rigidity within the People's Party.

Looking forward to the day that "nostalgia and humility will again be able to have a greater place" Schmid – his voice breaking – teasingly pleaded with photographers to stop taking pictures before leaving the press gallery with a nosebleed.

People's Party

Schmid's departure leaves three options for the People's Party; the single largest bloc in parliament lacks representation in Switzerland's seven-member cabinet.

According to political scientist Hans Hirter of Lausanne University, it could re-nominate Christoph Blocher for a ministerial position.

Blocher did not rule himself out of the running on Wednesday, saying he would consider the position if the party called on him.

The party could also go with another hardliner such as president Toni Brunner or head of the parliamentary faction Casper Baader, or choose a moderate like Bernese parliamentarian Adrian Amstutz or Zurich Senator Bruno Zuppiger.

But that kind of nomination would be difficult, Hirter believes. If it doesn't put forth an ideological stalwart – Blocher in particular – the party again risks showing that it is politically divided.

"We want our ideas to be represented in the government," said Brunner.

swissinfo with agencies

Samuel Schmid

Born in 1947, Schmid is married and has three children.

After law studies at Bern University, he practised as a lawyer.

He began a political career in his commune of Rüti bei Büren and was later a member of the Bernese cantonal parliament (1982-1993)

He was a member of the Swiss House of Representatives from 1994 to 1999 before becoming a member of the Senate (1999-2000). He was also head of the People's Party parliamentary group (1998-1999).

Elected to the government on December 6, 2000, he took office the following January. He was president of Switzerland in 2005.

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Reaction

Swiss People's Party

Schmid's former party expects the seat to be taken by a member of the People's Party.

Party boss Toni Brunner was conciliatory towards Schmid, saying he had served the nation well.

Stefan Brubpacher, secretary-general of the Radical Party

Schmid made a difficult decision in difficult circumstances.

"You do not play with the security of the country."

Swiss Trade Union Federation

Wishes Schmid well in his private life.

Christian Levrat, president of the Social Democratic Party

The resignation was no surprise.

Schmid had been torpedoed by his former party and didn't want to be the political whipping boy.

Green Party

Schmid was no longer the right man for the job.

His resignation was a wise decision in the face of political controversy and his health concerns.

Eduard Engelberger, president of the SWISS LABEL industry association and Radical Party parliamentarian

Engelberger was surprised but said he understood the defence minister's decision.

He believes the Swiss People's Party will be represented in cabinet.

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