The ‘Pandemic President’ resigns

The ‘Pandemic President’ resigns

Wed, Jun 21st 2023

Affairs, lawsuits, and Covid criticism: Alain Berset’s reign has been far from boring. This week he announced his resignation.
Swiss President Alain Berset at his resignation announcement on June 21, 2023 in Bern (Keystone SDA).

(Keystone SDA) Alain Berset’s name is likely to remain associated with one of the most serious crises in recent times: the Covid 19 pandemic. But he is also the minister of social affairs, who has achieved substantial AHV reform. Berset announced his resignation on Wednesday.

In 2003, Freiburg voters elected the 51-year-old Social Democrat to the Council of States. In 2009 he became President of the Council of States, then the youngest member of the small chamber. In 2011 he was elected to the Federal Council, succeeding Micheline Calmy-Rey from Geneva.

The PhD of political science and economics and father of three will have headed the Federal Department of Home Affairs (FDHA) for twelve years when his term of office ends at the end of December. Berset has repeatedly been accused of wanting to change, most recently at the end of 2022. But Berset, although now the longest-serving member of the Federal Council, retained the interior department.

In his time as Federal President, Berset found himself surrounded by indiscretions. In January, a local newspaper reported on leaked e-mails with internal information on pandemic measures that Berset’s former head of communications had leaked to Ringier CEO Marc Walder before the decisions in the state government.

The judiciary committee is investigating, the business control committees of the parliament have taken up the topic. Berset assured that he was ready to face the questions of parliamentary oversight. The affair played no role in his decision not to run for re-election, he said on Wednesday.

Demonstrators protest in Covid-19 measures in front of the Federal Palace in 2022 (Keystone SDA).
Negative pressure

Rather, the reason for Berset’s announcement was the now-over Covid-19 pandemic. Berset was at the forefront as the coronavirus dominated social, political and economic life. The Federal Council ruled temporarily using an emergency law which banned events, closed businesses and implemented the Covid Mobile Certificate.  

The “special situation” according to the Epidemics Act applied for almost two years. At the heart of the emergency powers was Alain Berset. He and the Federal Council followed a course oscillating between strict measures and relaxations.

The pressure was on him, Berset himself admitted. The Minister of Health was sometimes exposed to hateful words and even threats. 

“It was a huge workload,” he said on Wednesday.

Berset answering questions over the UBS-Credit Suisse merger in Parliament (Keystone SDA).
Swiss Voters’ support

At the beginning of the pandemic in particular, the lack of preparation and the lack of masks gave rise to criticism. Deficiencies in digitization, inconsistent and too late protective measures in the cantons have also been repeatedly criticized – especially when the number of cases rose again rapidly in autumn 2020.

The majority, however, supported the course of the Federal Council: three times, most recently on Sunday, the voters said yes to the Covid-19 law. In autumn 2022, Berset then had to present the bill for the pandemic: health insurance premiums rose by 6.6% in 2023. The reason was higher healthcare costs due to Covid-19 and lingering effects due to postponed interventions.

Progress has been slow to combat rising health care costs, as the Federal Council and Parliament have been moving between the needs of patients and medical professionals, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. The ball has gone back and forth between government and parliament for years.

Berset has been known for his fashion choices, especially his hat collection (Keystone SDA).
Perennial HEalth costs

For example, Parliament said no to the proposed price system for generic drugs that are comparatively expensive in Switzerland. And then there was the people’s initiatives from the Social Democrat Party to curb drug costs and health premium prices. Today, there are counter-proposals in the works for both.

However, Berset is also the Minister of Social Affairs, and has been able to achieve a substantial AHV reform for years. After a narrow vote, the retirement age for women will increase gradually from 64 to 65 in 2024. In addition, VAT will be increased in favor of AHV.

For Berset, however, the AHV revision was not a moment to celebrate: he immediately called for caution in the ongoing reform of occupational pensions. After the councils undercut the compromise presented by the social partners, a referendum is in the pipeline. The voting campaign is likely to be intense.

Berset would have wanted the tobacco advertising ban to be more restrictive than Parliament did. After the Yes to the “Children and young people without tobacco advertising” initiative in February 2022, the revised Tobacco Products Act will be tightened. The tobacco trade and the advertising industry have harshly criticizing the planned total tobacco advertising ban.

Berset meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the European Political Community Summit in Moldova on June 1, 2023 (Keystone SDA).
‘Swiss President’ on the street

Berset’s first year as President was in 2018. The man from Friburg, known for his stylish appearances, had the eyes of the world on him in New York when a snapshot published in the media showed the “Swiss President” in front of the UN building reading documents, wearing a suit and sitting on a curb.

Negative headlines, such as the attempted extortion of a former lover and the allegation of breach of official secrecy against his former confidante and media spokesman in connection with the crypto affair, missed Berset’s resignation list. At the end of March, the crypto affair was closed.

A mistake by the French air police outed Berset as a private pilot in the summer of 2022: Because the authority radioed Berset incorrectly and he did not react, the air police brought the minister, who was traveling alone in a small plane, to the ground.

This article was reprinted with permission from Keystone SDA.

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