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Foreign affairs changes hands in reshuffle

Alain Berset, left, will take over the interior ministry from Didier Burhalter, right, who becomes Foreign Minister Keystone

Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter of the Radical Party is to take over as foreign minister, replacing Micheline Calmy-Rey who steps down at the end of the year.

The cabinet met on Friday to allocate the ministries after Wednesday’s elections which saw Alain Berset of the Social Democratic party chosen to fill the seat left vacant by Calmy-Rey.

Berset, who had declared himself willing to take on any ministry, will now go to the interior ministry.

The allocation of the seven government portfolios is done according to seniority. All the other ministers decided to stay where they were.

Government spokesman André Simonazzi announced the changes at a news conference. He said that discussions about the new designation of ministries was short and conducted in a “good atmosphere”.

Both Berset and Burkhalter  declined to speak to the media about their new roles, which will become official following the next meeting of the cabinet in January.

Burkhalter has been interior minister since his election to the cabinet in 2009, and the Radical Party had held the ministry for 11 years. It includes the health portfolio.

On Friday, Berset’s appointment was welcomed by health union Santé Suisse as a “breath of fresh air”, but for Andreas Ladner of the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration, Berset has a difficult task ahead.

Baptism of Fire

One of the first tasks facing Berset in the interior ministry will be to defend the government’s Managed Care health project against attack by his own party, which has launched a referendum against the project.

The Managed Care project was approved by parliament in September after seven years of negotiations. It aims to integrate health services and streamline collaboration and coordination over treatment options.

Ladner said the old age pension scheme and the cost of health insurance were two major policy areas also in need of reform. He said the interior ministry would be something of a natural fit for the Social Democrats.

“For the Social Democrats it is an important department, they are lucky to get it,” Ladner told

“These are important topics where they can develop their ideas of solidarity and provide schemes which are more socially minded, and in line with their ideas. It won’t be easy but at least they have the possibility to bring forward their ideas.”

In a statement on Friday, the Social Democrats said they were “delighted” with Berset’s appointment as interior minister.

“Under [Berset’s] leadership and over the coming months and years, important strategic decisions will be taken. He brings the skills, know-how and the instinct to successfully lead this department, and has asked to initiate socially acceptable health and social policy reforms,” the party said.

Quietly does it

At the foreign ministry, perhaps the biggest difference will be one of style – the flamboyant Calmy-Rey had been foreign minister since joining the cabinet in 2002. She is widely credited with having given foreign affairs a new prominence by implementing a policy which she described as “active neutrality”.

Ladner said that while Burkhalter would bring a different style to the foreign ministry, he expects that Calmy-Rey’s policies will be largely continued.

“It’s not going to be the complete opposite of Calmy-Rey, I expect it will go on as it used to, although he will do it a bit more quietly than Calmy-Rey,” Ladner told

“He might perhaps call it something different than active neutrality but the policy will still be about getting involved where you can help, and being linked to other countries in order to not be isolated.”

Ladner suggested that the Radical Party had chosen the foreign ministry because foreign policy had become more important in Swiss politics in recent years: “so why not tackle this department? It’s an interesting department these days, it brings you into contact with other international players”.

Tasks ahead

In a statement released on Friday, the Radical Party agreed with Ladner’s assessment.

“At a time of  European debt turbulence, and the rapid development of the newly industrialised countries of Asia and Latin America, Swiss foreign policy is of central importance.

“Foreign Minister Burkhalter can therefore perform important services not only in strengthening Switzerland’s successful bilateral path with the EU, but also in deepening our country’s relations with the emerging states outside Europe,” the party said.

The Social Democrats and Christian Democrats welcomed the allocation of seats, and the Conservative Democrats said they were satisfied.

Only the right wing People’s Party came out against choices. It says the interior ministry should not have been taken away from a centrist party, since the foreign ministry is less important.

Party leader Toni Brunner, while criticising Burkhalter’s performance in his old ministry, called on him not to follow in Calmy-Rey’s footsteps, but to “concern himself more with Switzerland’s interests”. 

Alain Berset, Social Democrat

Born in 1972 in Fribourg, Berset is married with three children. He studied political science and economics at Neuchâtel University from where he received a PhD in economics in 2005.

After working as a research scientist and political advisor, he was elected to the Senate in 2003 and was Senate president in 2009.

Didier Burkhalter, Radical Party

Born in 1960, Burkhalter has a degree in economics and comes from the French-speaking canton of Neuchâtel, which he represented in the Senate from 2007 until his elevation to the cabinet in 2009.

He sat in the House of Representatives from 2003 to 2007. At his election to the Neuchâtel city council in 1991, he became one of the youngest Swiss politicians to take on an executive function.

In 2005 his mediation skills led to him being named the vice-chairman of the Radicals in the House of Representatives. 

The Swiss cabinet consists of seven members, representing the main strands of opinion and elected by parliament.

After parliamentary elections, which take place every four years, they submit themselves for re-election, unless they want to step down.

In 2011 only one minister decided to leave: Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

She was replaced by another Social Democrat, Alain Berset.

Once the ministers have been chosen during the first session of the new parliament, they meet together allocate the seven portfolios.

The allocation is agreed by the cabinet as a whole, but choice goes in order of seniority in government.

The newest minister has the least say in which portfolio he or she gets.

In 2011 five ministers stayed where they were.

Only Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter moved, taking over Calmy-Rey’s seat, leaving the interior ministry to the newly elected Berset.

There is unlikely to be another reshuffle unless a current minister steps down in the middle of the parliamentary term.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR