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Major cabinet reshuffle stirs emotions

Doris Leuthard left the cabinet meeting as one of the winners Keystone

The Swiss cabinet has announced a major reshuffle following last week’s election of two new ministers.

They will take over the economics and the justice ministries, while the two incumbents move to the transport and the finance ministries respectively.

Monday’s announcement came as a surprise and prompted mixed reactions.

It is the biggest reshuffle of the multi-party cabinet in several decades, and appears to be the result of an alliance of the ministers of the centre-right parties. They were able to wrest control of the coveted transport ministry from the centre-left Social Democrats.

After four years in office Economics Minister Doris Leuthard will take over the transport, energy, environment and communications portfolios.

Leuthard defended her move, referring to the seniority principle respected in cabinet, whereby the longest serving ministers can express their desire for a particular portfolio.

Leuthard’s ministry will go to the newly-elected Johann Schneider-Ammann of the centre-right Radical Party.

The change of Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf to the finance ministry is seen as the big upset of the reshuffle.

Widmer-Schlumpf, who represents the small centre-right Conservative Democratic Party, has been under attack from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party since 2007 when she accepted her election against the will of the People’s party strongman, Christoph Blocher.

Angry left and right

Observers point out that Widmer-Schlumpf might be unseated following next year’s general elections. She entered government thanks to the support of the centre-left. Now, according to political analyst Michael Hermann of Zurich University, she has angered the left too.

“The finance ministry is much more attractive [than the justice ministry]. There are sometimes unholy alliances between left and right, and she improved the chances that an unholy alliance will not give her another four years,” Hermann told

The moves left the newly-elected Simonetta Sommaruga of the centre-left Social Democrats with the justice ministry.

The Social Democratic Party, which has two seats in cabinet, has described the reshuffle as a “punitive action”.

“It does not bode well for the spirit of cooperation of the new cabinet,” said the party in a statement, adding that Sommaruga had inherited the justice portfolio even though it was one of only two posts she was not suited for.

Short straw

Hermann says it is surprising that Sommaruga, who is not a lawyer, is now heading up the justice ministry. He agrees that she, as well as her party, drew the short straw.

“The Social Democrats have always had one of the key ministries. They either had the interior, finance or transport and environment ministries. These are important because it allows them to distinguish themselves from the right.”

The analyst said it was unusual that the cabinet members were unable to find a consensus on the distribution of the portfolios – as was traditionally the modus operandi – and had to resort to a vote, which the centre-right parties won.

Sommaruga herself expressed her displeasure: “Personally, I would have preferred to have found a consensus on the handing out of posts [but] I respect the decision and will devote all of my strength to the justice and police ministry.”

While Sommaruga and her party may be disappointed, Hermann does not believe it will “poison the climate” for very long. “Sommaruga is very professional, and she’s the kind of person to forge alliances.”

The cabinet reshuffle means that only the ministers for the interior (Didier Burkhalter), defence (Ueli Maurer) and foreign affairs (Micheline Calmy-Rey) will keep their portfolios.

The Swiss cabinet is made up of seven ministers from five different parties. There is no prime minister and decisions are taken collectively and by consensus.

There has been a lot criticism in the past few years over a perceived lack of cooperation and collegiality among the cabinet members notably in handling of the global financial crisis and a diplomatic spat with Libya.

Justice: Simonetta Sommaruga
Economics: Johann Schneider-Ammann
Finance: Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf
Interior: Didier Burkhalter
Foreign: Micheline Calmy-Rey
Defence/sport: Ueli Maurer
Transport/energy/ communications/ environment: Doris Leuthard

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 a considerable autonomy in the cabinet.

The cabinet comes up for confirmation every four years in the wake of parliamentary elections.

The Swiss government consists of a cabinet made up of seven members.

There is no prime minister. The position of president rotates among cabinet ministers every year.

The cabinet should reflect the political, cultural and linguistic diversity of the country.

For 50 years cabinet posts were shared out among the four main parties – the Radicals, the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Swiss People’s Party – under an informal agreement.

The system known as the Magic Formula was thrown out in 2003.

A fundamental tenet of the multiparty cabinet is the need to reach consensus and that decisions are taken collectively.

(with input from Dale Bechtel)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR