Action man takes on the presidency: a political veteran has taken the helm of the Swiss federal cabinet. Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin became Switzerland's president on January 1, 2008 and will hold the position for a year. Swiss News takes a look at the seasoned politician from Martigny, Canton Valais, and the role he's set to play this year.

Author:Mirza, Faryal

What does the year ahead promise? Some are betting on an eventful 12 months--including the incumbent Couchepin himself. Shortly before he donned the presidential robes, the man from Valais was asked on the national radio station DRS1 what kind of year 2008 would be, if it were a film.

"An action movie!" came his resolute reply.

The Swiss presidency is a largely ceremonial post that is rotated among the seven members of the federal cabinet. The president has no extra powers but is designated first among equals.

In that capacity, Couchepin--who is also the minister responsible for health and education--will now be asked to lead cabinet meetings and undertake special duties representing the Swiss government, ceremonial duties that will, no doubt, take centre-stage when Switzerland co-hosts the Euro 2008 football tournament in June.

But he also plans to bring on some changes.

Before 2007 was thrown out with the Christmas leftovers, Couchepin had opened a new front--against smokers.


Up in smoke

He announced in an interview with the German Sunday newspaper, the Sonntagszeitung, that he wanted to see the number of puffers go down.

"The number of smokers [within the Swiss population] has already gone down from 32 to 30 per cent. But I want it to go down to 20 per cent," Couchepin said.

Smokers were warned to expect the price of cigarettes to be regularly hiked without an upper limit in sight. With current prices hovering around SFr 6, paying SFr 10 per packet was not "anti-social", according to Couchepin, as "damaging oneself is not social".

However, the interior minister added that prices cannot be too astronomical compared with other countries or Switzerland will experience an increase in cigarette smuggling, so other measures could be expected in the next few months.

Future measures

More clues as to what Couchepin might get up to were in the traditional presidential New Year speech. Couchepin stressed that many changes were necessary to ensure that future generations were handed a "solid state--financially healthy and able to keep its promises in the social arena and in education in the long run".

Turning to the big picture, the president mentioned climate change and global poverty.

"Together with other countries, we have to confront the challenges posed by climate change with intelligent measures."

He added, "We need effective approaches to solving the gigantic problem of global poverty."

Second time round

It's the second...

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