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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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POLITICS

‘Something rotten in Switzerland’: US accuses Swiss of aiding Russia’s war efforts

A US government body has said Switzerland is a destination for “war criminals and kleptocrats”, accusing the Swiss of aiding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attacks on Ukraine.

‘Something rotten in Switzerland’: US accuses Swiss of aiding Russia’s war efforts

The US Government’s Helsinki Commission, an independent body promoting human rights, military security and economic cooperation, said in a briefing on Thursday that Switzerland was “Putin’s assistant” in the Russian leader’s brutal war on Ukraine. 

At the centre of the allegations is the Swiss financial system, which the commission says has allowed the storage of dirty money. 

“Switzerland has long been known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats who hide their loot there, and is a leading pioneer of the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies” the briefing read. 

British financier Bill Browder, who has been a frequent critic of Putin, told the meeting that Switzerland was letting itself be corrupted by Putin. 

“Something is rotten in Switzerland” Browder said. 

Swiss President Ignazio Cassis rejected the allegations, saying they are untrue. 

Cassis has seen Switzerland impose a range of sanctions on Russians, including some living in Switzerland. 

Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

One Russian oligarch living in the Swiss city of Geneva applied for social assistance after his accounts were frozen. 

‘We cannot find them’

While Switzerland has taken steps in recent years to shed its status as a destination for dodgy money, critics argue that the Swiss system still makes it difficult to trace funds. 

Swiss corruption expert Mark Pieth told RTS that Switzerland was still one of the world’s biggest destinations for illicit funds. 

“The problem is that oligarchs have funds in Switzerland and we cannot find them because they are behind so-called letterbox companies and offshore accounts” he said. 

“Places are hidden. This means that only certain specialised lawyers really know who the beneficial owners are and they are not obliged to provide the federal government with information.”

On April 28th, 2021, in his first State of the Union address as US president, Joe Biden referred to Switzerland as a “tax haven”.

His exact words were: “A lot of companies also evade taxes through tax havens in Switzerland and Bermuda and the Cayman Islands”.

ANALYSIS: Is Switzerland actually a tax haven?

The Helsinki Commission is a group made up of politicians, government representatives and parliamentary experts. 

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