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EXPLAINED: Who is Switzerland’s new President Ignazio Cassis?

Ignazio Cassis was elected Swiss President on Wednesday, marking the first time in 24 years someone from Italian-speaking Switzerland has the top job.

Incoming Swiss President Ignazio Cassis. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
Swiss President Ignazio Cassis. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

On Wednesday, December 8th at noon, Ignazio Cassis was elected by Swiss parliament as the country’s new President. 

Cassis’ term will begin on January 1st. In his acceptance speech, he pledged Switzerland “would not allow itself to be divided” amid the Covid pandemic. 

Ignazio Cassis: Switzerland swears in new President

“The pandemic has not divided us – because we cannot be divided” Cassis said. “The virus will stay, but the crisis will come to an end.”

But wait, I don’t remember an election? 

The transfer of presidential power in Switzerland is not only peaceful, it takes place with relatively little fanfare, with only a small handover to indicate someone new is in the top job. 

While there usually is a ceremony in mid-December, this has been postponed due to the pandemic and will take place in 2022. 

The Presidential role is largely ceremonial, with members of the Federal Council elected to the position on an annual basis. 

Swiss Presidents are seen as “primus inter pares” (first among equals) among their six Federal Council colleagues and is technically not a ‘head of state’ as he or she might be in different countries. 

Generally, the member of the Federal Council who has not been President for the longest period of time will be elected to the position. 

READ MORE: A foreigner’s guide to understanding Swiss politics in five minutes

Health Minister Alain Berset was elected to the vice presidency on Wednesday, meaning he will likely take the top job in 2023. 

Who is Cassis then? 

Ignazio Cassis, a medical doctor by training, comes from the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. 

He’s only the fifth President from the region and is the first to take the top job in 24 years. 

He has been the Foreign Affairs Minister since he joined the Federal Council in 2017 and will retain the job while serving as president. 

READ MORE: Switzerland elects Guy Parmelin to Presidency 

What is he like? 

Cassis comes from the Liberal Party, which is conservative and pro-business party, but more socially progressive than the far-right Swiss People’s Party, which provided the outgoing President Guy Parmelin. 

Cassis has been criticised for gaffes in the past, although he is considered a consensus builder who is likely to be purposefully disruptive in office.  

How much does he earn? 

OK so now it’s getting juicy!

Switzerland being as expensive as it is, the President earns a high salary – and next year it is getting a little higher. 

The current presidential salary is 454,581 per year, which will go up by 1,000CHF per month in 2022. 

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Switzerland preparing to host Zelensky’s first trip since invasion

Swiss officials are preparing to welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s first overseas trip since Russia invaded in late February, when he visits the southern canton of Ticino for a conference on Ukrainian security in July.

Switzerland preparing to host Zelensky’s first trip since invasion

Zelensky has been invited to the event on July 4th and 5th in Lugano alongside several world leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron. 

Swiss media reports the Ukrainian leader looks set to attend the conference, which would make it his first trip abroad since Russia invaded in late February. 

Swiss broadsheet Tages Anzeiger reported on Wednesday that Zelensky originally committed to attend the conference before the invasion, but Swiss authorities said in March the Ukrainian President’s attendance was “no longer imaginable”. 

Security services however said on Wednesday they are continuing to operate under the assumption Zelensky will attend the conference, which would be his first overseas visit. 

Zelensky spoke with Swiss President Ignazio Cassis on Saturday and Swiss authorities believe the Ukrainian President is still planning on attending, but has acknowledged he may cancel the visit at short notice depending on the situation in Ukraine. 

Zelensky has previously refused offers to leave Ukraine, saying he would remain in Kyiv as long as the invasion continued. 

What is the conference about?

Initially planned as a conference to discuss reform, organisers say it will now focus on security, fundraising and reconstruction efforts in Ukraine. 

Security Director Norman Gobbi told the Tages Anzeiger “The reform conference has become a donor and reconstruction conference – with completely different dimensions in terms of security policy.”

Gobbi said the conference had grown in importance “especially since in addition to the Ukrainian representatives, heads of state such as Mario Draghi, Emmanuel Macron or Olaf Scholz are considering attending”. 

“For Lugano, for the canton of Tessin and for Switzerland it is an honour – but a considerable challenge – to host such a conference”. 

Switzerland has thrown its support behind Ukraine since the invasion, joining EU sanctions efforts despite domestic criticism that it amounts to an erosion of the country’s commitment to neutrality. 

READ MORE: Sanctions on Russia – is Switzerland still a neutral nation? 

Cassis has dismissed these concerns, saying “doing nothing in the face of an aggressor is not neutral”. 

Zelensky, who previously met Cassis in October 2021 before their April 30th meeting, has previously said he would consider a Swiss-style form of armed neutrality in order to bring the invasion to an end. 

The southern, Italian-speaking canton of Ticino has come under increasing scrutiny since Russia’s invasion, with speculation in Russian and Swiss media that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mistress, Alina Kabaeva, lives in Ticino, with several of Putin’s children. 

At least two of Putin’s children are believed to have been born in Lugano, with US government officials believing they have spent their time alongside their mother in a Lugano villa and in a luxury compound in the western canton of Geneva. 

Swiss officials have said publicly that Kabaeva has not been issued with a Swiss residency permit, giving rise to media speculation that she is living in the country illegally. 

Kabaeva, a former gymnast who won Olympic gold, made her first appearance since the invasion at a gymnastics event in Moscow in April, where she called upon Russia to support the war efforts. 

In her appearance, Kabaeva said “every family has a war story and we mustn’t forget it”, while linking the current invasion to the Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War Two

READ MORE: Pressure building on Switzerland to deport Putin’s mistress