Behind the headlines: How Switzerland’s political golden child fell from grace

Last year, Geneva politician Pierre Maudet was nearly voted in as one of Switzerland’s seven presidents. On Thursday, he was forced to temporarily quit his role as Geneva president just months after landing the key job. So what happened?

Behind the headlines: How Switzerland's political golden child fell from grace
Swiss politician Pierre Maudet. Photo: Niels Ackermann

Who is Pierre Maudet?

Until he caved to increasing political pressure and announced he would temporarily step aside on Thursday, Pierre Maudet was the president of the canton of Geneva with the small-business friendly, centrist Liberals party (FDP).

A father of three, Maudet, who is known for his work ethic and charm, was a rising star of Swiss politics. His trajectory through the ranks of Geneva politics from city councillor to the canton’s top job was nothing short of astronomical.

Read also: Ten things you need to know about the Swiss political system

Last year, he just missed out on becoming one of Switzerland’s seven presidents, with Ignazio Cassis, the current foreign minister, landing the role on the Federal Council instead.

Aged just 40, it looked like the world (or Switzerland at least) was Maudet’s oyster.

Things currently look a little different: while the scandal-hit politician remains a state councillor for now, people are speculating that his political career is effectively over.

So why the fall from grace?

Things started to go pear-shaped when questions began being asked about a private journey Maudet made to Abu Dhabi in late 2015.

Maudet had already travelled to the emirate in May of that year on official business, meeting with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan.

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi (centre). Photo: AFP

And in November that year, Maudet travelled back to Abu Dhabi with his wife and three children on a private trip. They flew business class, stayed in luxury hotels and attended the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 race.

Three months later, the contract for ground services at Geneva Airport – part of Maudet’s ministerial brief – was awarded to a company from Abu Dhabi.

How were suspicions about the trip raised?

In 2016, a journalist with Switzerland’s Le Matin Dimanche newspaper discovered Maudet had met with the Abu Dhabi crown prince again during his second, private, trip. The journalist confronted the politician, but Maudet said the trip had been private and that he had simply “run into” Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Maudet went on to provide details about the cost of the trip. Those details struck the journalist as implausible, but these were not published by Le Matin Dimanche.

However, a member of the Geneva financial crime unit used this research to put together a report which was sent to state prosecutors in Geneva. They then opened an investigation against an “unnamed person”.

When Maudet made his run for the Federal Council last year, his party screened him but the Abu Dhabi trip remained out of the frame.

So how did it all go public?

In May of this year, just a month after Maudet was voted in as Geneva president, Swiss media published new revelations showing the politician had also visited the Formula 1 security centre during his November 2015 visit.

Maudet stated in response that he had been invited on a trip by a businessman by the name of Said Bustany and had received 4,000 francs as “compensation” for ticket purchases which he had given to the church. He was given the benefit of the doubt.

But things came to a head on August 30th when Geneva state prosecutors announced they were investigating Maudet for accepting benefits.

According to prosecutors, Maudet and his family had travelled to Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the crown prince with travel costs in the tens of thousands of francs being covered. The version of events which saw Said Bustany pay 4,000 was a cover story, prosecutors said.

Members of the Geneva property world had also been involved in planning the trip, they said.

The apology

On September 5th, Maudet came out and admitted on local Geneva television that he had “hidden part of the truth” about the trip. He said that he had made an error in going ahead with the trip even after learning that it was being paid for by a foreign government. But he said he had kept quiet partly to protect his family.

That same day, Maudet was stripped of some of his responsibilities and on Thursday, he announced he would step aside from his roles as Geneva President and minister for the police and airport on a temporary basis.

His decision came just a day after state broadcaster SRF reported on documents allegedly showing one of the Lebanese businessmen who had helped organise Maudet's 2015 trip had been awarded preliminary permission to develop farm land near Geneva airport.

So what has the reaction been?

The case has caused consternation and disbelief in Switzerland, with the revelations unleashing an “earthquake” in Geneva politics, according to public broadcaster SRF.

There have been calls for Maudet to resign from the left side of the political divide while even FDP President Petra Gössi not-so-indirectly hinted it might be time for her man in Geneva to go.

“I am disappointed by President Pierre Maudet,” wrote FDP President Petra Gössi on Twitter on Thursday. “We have invested a lot of time and energy in recent years to show that we are a party of the people,” she said, calling for a clear explanation from her colleague.

She said Maudet’s future was now in the hands of FDP in Geneva and it was up them to decide if he could remain in his office given the loss of confidence in him, or whether “he should draw the appropriate conclusions”.

On Thursday, the Tages Anzeiger daily said Swiss people were now asking themselves why Maudet had put his stellar career on the line for 20,000 francs or so.

Several media outlets also noted the Swiss central government must be feeling a mixture of shame and relief knowing that Maudet narrowly missed out on becoming a member of the seven-member federal council.

What happens next?

The Geneva cantonal parliament must decide if it will lift Maudet’s immunity clearing the way for him to be investigated. Maudet himself has already said he is prepared for public prosecutors to look into the case against him. But all indications are that the clock is well and truly ticking.