Politics For Members

Who is Switzerland’s new president and why is he so controversial?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Who is Switzerland’s new president and why is he so controversial?
Newly elected Swiss President Alain Berset, who will start his one-year term on January 1st. Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP

From January 1st until December 31st 2023, the country will have a new president, Alain Berset. That is nothing unusual — Switzerland’s presidents change every year. However, unlike most of his predecessors, Berset is no stranger to scandals.


The fact that Berset has been at the centre of controversy is unusual among Swiss politicians, and especially among Federal Council members, who present mostly a low-key, non-confrontational front.

Not so Berset.

As one media outlet put it, “hardly any other Swiss government member is as deeply loathed by some circles as Berset."

What exactly did Berset, 50, a member of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party who originates from the French-speaking canton of Fribourg, do to earn such scorn?

As the head of the The Federal Department of Home Affairs, which also encompasses the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), Berset has the title of the Health Minister — a decidedly unpopular role during Covid.


Even though all the decisions regarding pandemic management — including the confinement, along with various restrictions, quarantines, mask mandates, and the much-maligned Covid certificate — were made jointly by the Federal Council rather than unilaterally by Berset, he was the proverbial scapegoat, the most visible face of the health crisis, and therefore the most hated.

To be precise, he was not hated by the entire population, but only by Covid deniers and anti-vaxxers, but since this group was the most vocal and most militant, it seemed like everyone in Switzerland had a bone to pick with Berset.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why does Switzerland’s president only serve one year?

In fact, as he received a number of death and other threats from the anti-Covid camp, Berset was assigned a personal bodyguard — a highly unusual measure in Switzerland, where elected officials and even presidents routinely walk around in the streets and travel by public transportation without any protection.

Berset, wearing a protective facemask, leaves a press conference on Covid-19 restrictions. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

But that is not the only time the minister got himself into a lot of hot water.

Several years ago, it became public knowledge that Berset, who is married and a father of three, had an affair.

That in itself wasn’t the worst of it, however.

The woman tried to blackmail him on Instagram; as a result, the federal police got involved and elite forces searched the woman’s house — all very hush-hush.

However, when the media got wind of the story, the anti-Berset sentiment swept the country, and the incident sparked debates on street corners and in the highest reaches of the government.

There was talk (though no concrete proof) of Berset abusing power and using his position influence authorities who investigated the case.

However, parliamentary commissions found no wrongdoing on Berset’s part (aside from the affair itself, though that is a moral rather than legal judgement),and cleared the minister of any misconduct.


Will Berset be a good president?

Only time will tell, though he is certainly a seasoned politician — he has served on the Federal Council for the past 10 years, and already held the one-year rotating presidency in 2018.

However, being “a good president” doesn’t carry as much weight in Switzerland as it does elsewhere.

Unlike most countries, there is nothing surprising or dramatic about the choice of presidents in Switzerland: each of the seven members of the Federal Council gets a shot at the job. And if they stay on the Council for more than seven years, they can become president more than once — as is the case with Berset.

Also unlike other countries, the Swiss president has virtually no power. Other than representing Switzerland abroad, “he or she chairs the Federal Council meetings and mediates in the case of disputes", according to the official government site.

In urgent situations, the president can order precautionary measures. And in the unlikely event that the Federal Council is unable to hold either an ordinary or an extraordinary meeting, the president may take a unilateral decision” — the latter being the only bit of “power” the president can wield. 


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