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Switzerland’s Alain Berset is no Teflon man

Federal Councillor Alain Berset. Raffael Waldner / 13 Photo

Switzerland loves a good summer scandal. And once again, it is about cabinet minister Alain Berset. 

This content was published on July 31, 2022 - 10:30

A new political scandal has blown up in Switzerland – almost a full-fledged one this time. As we all know, Switzerland is not a monarchy. The nobility was abolished long ago, and the country does not even have a real president. The top job belongs to the head of the seven-member cabinet – a position which rotates each year. In short, the country is too small and perhaps too even keeled for scandals rooted in real people or celebrities. 

Yet the Swiss appear to yearn for figures that loom larger than life, for leaders that shine as bright as stars and then topple from grace. And they too crave human drama. Every few years, this need crystallises around a person or an event. In July 2022, that person is Alain Berset, currently serving as the home affairs minister. 

Berset, 50, is a snappy dresser, trimly built and sporty. He likes to wear a straw hat on his bald head and sunglasses. A member of the left-wing Social Democratic Party, he has been in the government for the past ten years and was one of the most prominent politicians during the coronavirus pandemic. He is also a pianist, an art enthusiast and, as has recently been discovered, an amateur pilot. He is quick-witted, dandyish and politically savvy. Many people admire him. 

And many hate him. Hardly any other Swiss government member is as deeply loathed by some circles as cabinet minister Berset. During the pandemic, he came under fire from coronavirus deniers and those critical of the restrictive measures imposed. He was accused of “dictatorial attitudes”, and worse. Even before, though, he was strongly disliked, especially by the political right, which regularly demand his resignation. 

Admired, hated - and politically a high-flyer. Alain Berset has been on the Federal Council for ten years, but he is still its youngest member. Keystone / Peter Schneider

Now here we go again. There are growing calls for Berset to step down, even by the press. This is unusual for Switzerland, which has no culture of voting politicians out of office. But many media outlets are questioning, more or less openly, whether he is fit to remain in government. 

So how did we get here? Our summary of this Swiss summer soap-opera in three episodes: 

  • A love affair, blackmail and stormtroopers: Several years ago, it became public that the cabinet minister had had an extramarital affair with a pianist. After the relationship ended, she tried to blackmail him with Instagram postings. Blackmail of a member of the government? The emergency alert was sounded: the federal police were called in, elite forces searched the woman’s house, and everything was hushed up – but there was a media leak. That was sensitive. The media in Switzerland usually keeps quiet about the love affairs of politicians; it is an unwritten law, a rule of decency. But there was possibly more to the story. Maybe the minister also misused his power. Some newspapers accused Berset of taking advantage of his official position to sway the authorities handling the case. Several parliamentary commissions conducted probes and concluded that everything had been above board. But even so, the image stuck of Berset as a bon vivant and power seeker. 
  • Breach of secrecy, emergency exit and intrigue: Berset’s long-time press officer resigned from his post. What, his closest confidant, his shadow – leaving just like that? It gradually emerged that he had no choice but to go. It must have been an emergency escape, for today we know that Berset’s former spokesman is undergoing criminal proceedings for breach of official secrecy. According to news reports, he was even held in custody for a few days – a measure very rarely taken against top officials in Switzerland. The man is suspected of having fed secret information to the media trying to cast his boss in a better light. Berset himself was not directly accused, but the reputation somehow sticks: a minister at the heart of intrigues, linked to a criminal violation of official secrecy. 
  • Amateur mistakes, embarrassing situations, and a hard landing: Hardly one week later, the media revealed the next episode, which the Department of Home Affairs had ruefully to confirm. In early July, Berset was intercepted by two French fighter jets during a private flight over France and forced to land. He was reportedly flying a single-engine Cessna without radio contact over a restricted military zone, prompting the French air police to intervene. On the radio, an expert gleefully lampooned the cabinet member’s behaviour, with the following graphic comparison: in the world of aviation, it was like parking your car in the middle of the Gotthard tunnel and setting up your picnic table. No proceedings were opened against Berset, according to his ministry. Nor was there any political fallout. However, the following will stick in people’s minds: a cabinet minister in a light aircraft who doesn’t seem to care a jot about the rules; the leader of a party that preaches public transport, but who likes to charter his own plane. 

Berset regularly scores as one of the most popular government members in the opinion polls. He is a better orator than many, not just in his native French but also in German. In the generally staid Swiss political establishment, his nonchalance and savoir-vivre stand out. This flair and flamboyance fascinate many. And irritate others. He is considered vain and arrogant. He has also had a meteoric political career, entering the country’s highest political sphere at the tender age of 40. 

The cabinet minister clearly provides ample material for controversy and friction on the one hand and admiration and accolades on the other. Ostentatious ambition is frowned upon in Switzerland, and brilliance considered rather suspect. It is no coincidence that most of the criticism is directed at him as a person, and less at his politics: as head of the Department of Home Affairs, he is responsible not only for health policy but also for the old-age pension system. Both areas are regarded as political hot potatoes, in which all attempts at lasting reform seem doomed to failure. Yet during the pandemic Berset communicated well and kept a sound judgement, almost everyone grants him that.  

During the pandemic, he was hated by some, although the majority of the population seemed to be satisfied with his work as health minister. Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Now he is entwined in three small scandals, which, even when added up, hardly amount to a whole. But there is a political component: the Social Democrats are losing voters, while the Greens are edging closer and demanding a seat in the government. This would probably have to come at the left-wing party’s expense. A weakening of its position would suit the political right, especially with elections slated for next year. Berset’s behaviour could become a liability for his party. It will be increasingly difficult to dismiss everything as a “private matter”. And once a reputation has stuck, it is hard to shake it off.  

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