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Cablegate: New Swiss Federal Councilor Didier Burkhalter

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DE RUEHSW #0389/01 2591619
ZNR UUUUU ZZH (CCY ADB27AEF MSI2421-695)
P 161619Z SEP 09
FM AMEMBASSY BERN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 6062
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE

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TAGS: PGOV PREL PINR SZ
SUBJECT: NEW SWISS FEDERAL COUNCILOR DIDIER BURKHALTER

1. (SBU) Summary: A joint session of the Swiss Parliament on
September 16 elected Council of States (Upper House) Member
Didier Burkhalter to replace Pascal Couchepin on the Federal
Council (Swiss Executive Cabinet). The special mid-term
election was scheduled after Couchepin announced earlier this
year that he would retire on November 1. A member of the
Swiss Free Democratic Party (FDP), Burkhalter's election
ensures that the FDP will continue to hold two of the seven
Federal Council seats. It is not clear whether Burkhalter
will assume Couchepin's portfolio as Minister of Home Affairs
(covering Health, Science, Social, and Education issues), but
it appears likely. Burkhalter is a reputed centrist in the
socially and fiscally conservative FDP. He does not favor
Switzerland joining the EU, but does support the idea of
Swiss participation in the EU's anti-piracy mission Atalanta,
which currently is under debate in the Swiss Parliament.
Post does not anticipate that Burkhalter's replacing
Couchepin on the Federal Council will have significant
implications for U.S.-Swiss relations. End Summary.

-------------------------
FDP DEFENDS SEAT FROM CVP
-------------------------

2. (SBU) A joint session of the Swiss Parliament on September
16 elected Council of States (Upper House) Member Didier
Burkhalter to replace Pascal Couchepin on the Federal Council
(Swiss Executive Cabinet). The special mid-term election was
scheduled after Couchepin announced earlier this year that he
would retire on November 1. With 129 votes in his favor, out
of a total of 239 votes cast in the fourth round of voting,
Burkhalter surpassed the absolute majority needed to win the
seat on the Federal Council. Christian Democratic People's
Party (CVP) candidate Urs Schwaller came in second with 106
votes.

3. (SBU) Burkhalter's victory allowed the FDP to defend its
second seat on the Federal Council from a challenge by the
CVP, which, together with some smaller parties, forms a
52-seat voting block in the full 246 seat Parliament (Upper
and Lower House), compared to the FDP's 47 seats. The FDP
bases its claim to two seats essentially on the fact that it
represents approximately 3-percent more of the Swiss
electorate than the CVP, according to the results of the 2007
parliamentary elections. At the end of the day, however,
tactical considerations of the other parties continue to give
the FDP the edge in holding on to its second seat. The
Greens (24 seats), for example, have never had a party member
elected to the Federal Council. They apparently have
calculated that, should the Green party's electoral fortunes
continue to rise in the 2011 parliamentary elections, it
would be easier for them to win one of two Federal Council
seats away from the FDP in future elections than to unseat a
center-left CVP member.

--------------------------------------------- --
BURKHALTER SWORN IN, PORTFOLIO TO BE DETERMINED
--------------------------------------------- --

4. (SBU) Burkhalter was sworn into office on September 16,
shortly after his election to the Federal Council. It is not
clear whether Burkhalter will assume Couchepin's portfolio as
Minister of Home Affairs (covering Health, Science, Social,
and Education issues), but it appears likely, since none of
the more senior Federal Council members have indicated
publicly a desire to change their current areas of
responsibilities. The distribution of ministerial portfolios
among the seven Federal Councilors is to be discussed at the
next regular Federal Council meeting on September 18.
Burkhalter is expected to assume his Federal Council duties
on November 1.

5. (SBU) Though not new to national politics, Burkhalter's
views on international affairs are relatively unknown. While
in Parliament, he has served on the Council of States
Committee for Science, Education, and Culture -- all
experience relevant to the Home Affairs portfolios of
outgoing Federal Councilor Couchepin. Regarding the ever
present, often emotional issue of Swiss-EU relations,
Burkhalter reportedly does not favor Switzerland joining the
EU. He does, however, support the proposal for Swiss
participation in the EU's anti-piracy mission Atalanta, which
currently is under debate in the Swiss Parliament. Post does
not anticipate that Burkhalter's replacing Couchepin on the
Federal Council will have significant implications for
U.S.-Swiss relations.

-------------------------------------
BIOGRAPHIC NOTES ON DIDIER BURKHALTER
-------------------------------------
6. (U) The 49-year-old Burkhalter is from the French-speaking
part of Switzerland. In addition to French, he is fluent in
German, and reportedly also speaks English. He is an
economist by background, and has substantial experience in
government administration at the communal and cantonal
levels. From 1991 to 2005, he was a City Councilor in
Neuenburg, and during that time served three times as Mayor.
From 1990-2001 he also held a seat in the Neuchatel Cantonal
Parliament. From 2003-2007, he served as a National
Councilor in the Federal Parliament. Burkhalter was elected
in 2007 to the Council of States of the Parliament, where he
served until his election September 16 to the Federal
Council. Burkhalter is a reputed centrist in the socially
and fiscally conservative FDP. As a native French-speaker
from Western Switzerland, Burkhalter's election maintains the
current regional-linguistic balance on the Federal Council.
He is the father of three sons and his wife is Austrian.
BEYER

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