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The government goes on holiday - together

Justice minister Ruth Metzler, Swiss president Kaspar Villiger and foreign minister Joseph Deiss share a laugh on their big day out Keystone

After the stress of this week's cabinet meeting - the last before the summer break - it is time for the Swiss government to let its collective hair down.

This content was published on July 4, 2002 - 14:23

The five wise men and two equally wise women can relax on their annual two-day outing before heading off on their holidays.

Every year the president invites cabinet colleagues on a "mystery tour" of sorts; mystery in the sense that the exact location remains a secret until the day of departure.

But as it is always held in the region of the incumbent president, it is not hard to guess that this year the seven-strong team will be heading off to Lucerne - the home base of Kaspar Villiger.

New year - new president

It is one of the peculiarities of the Swiss political system that the presidential portfolio is a rotating one. Each member of the cabinet in turn holds the post for a year, adding largely ceremonial duties to his or her ministerial responsibilities. The changeover occurs on January 1.

Last year it was Moritz Leuenberger juggling transport and communications with the presidency, and next year it will be the turn of the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin.

This year though it is the finance minister, Villiger, who will be playing host to the rest of his colleagues.

Political analyst, Hans Hirter, says the rotating presidency is a vital part of the Swiss political system.

"It's really unique in the world that Switzerland has a government without a prime minister who chooses his cabinet," he told swissinfo.

"Instead you have a committee of seven members each with equal rights, and you need someone who is going to act as chairman and at least head the meetings.

"But as they all have the same rights, there needs to be a rotating presidency so that every member has his or her turn."

The annual get together is a chance for the members of government to get to know one another a little better away from the formalities of Bern. More importantly perhaps, they are also away from the glare of the media, although journalists will be allowed to mingle at two predetermined times on Thursday and Friday.

United we stand

The break gives the government the chance to relax and discuss ideas informally. It also allows them to put aside any political differences they might have and present a united front.

"The two-day holiday is a symbol that the members of the cabinet can get on with each other on a personal level as well as a professional one," says Hirter.

It is worth remembering that the Swiss cabinet, although not an official coalition in the real sense of the word, draws its members from four different political parties, under what is known as the "magic formula" - a power-sharing agreement dating back to 1958.

The cabinet is comprised of two Radicals, Villiger and Couchepin; two Social Democrats, Leuenberger and Ruth Dreifuss; two Christian Democrats, Joseph Deiss and Ruth Metzler; and one member of the Swiss People's Party - Samuel Schmid.

The composition is intended to reflect the strength of each party in the House of Representatives. But since the general elections in 1999, the Christian Democrats have been allowed to keep two cabinet posts even though they fell behind the People's Party, which still has just one.

Summer holidays

After the two-day break each member of the cabinet will be off on the official summer break. Villiger will prepare for the next session by heading off to the mountains in eastern and southern Switzerland.

But there will be an interruption for official duties on August 1 - National Day in Switzerland - when Villiger will hold the presidential address in Zurich.

The interior minister, Dreifuss, will begin her holiday rambling in Brittany in France, followed by more of the same in the Gotthard region of Switzerland.

Couchepin will also spend the first part of his holiday abroad - two weeks in the south of France - before heading back home to canton Valais also for a spot of rambling.

The youngest member of the cabinet is the justice minister, Metzler. She has an action-packed agenda planned - diving in the Mediterranean.

But Metzler will have to wait a while before taking to the water as July 7 is the beginning of her week-long official trip to Asia, with stops in Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.

The foreign minister, Deiss, and the communications minister, Leuenberger are both planning to spend their holidays in Switzerland. But the defence minister, Schmid, remains somewhat secretive about where he is headed, saying only that he will be out of the country for a fortnight.

Unless they are called back urgently the cabinet can look forward to four weeks away from the political hurly-burly of Bern.

Jonathan Summerton with agencies

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