Berlin Perspectives Blog
Berlin Perspectives Blog
Posted by Carlos
No, Angela Merkel has not been replaced. She has been Germany’s Chancellor since 2005, not the President. The new man (in spite of female candidates, it’s only been men so far) to move into presidential residency at Bellevue Palace in Berlin is Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He was elected on Sunday, 12th of February, and his term begins on Sunday, 19th of March. Although less power rests with the office of the President, whose role often is misconstrued as merely ceremonial, Steinmeier’s election has important ramifications.
After the experience of dictatorship under the ‘Third Reich’, the executive branch of government in the Federal Republic of Germany (the official name of West and, after 1990, unified Germany) has been divided in two: head of government (Chancellor) and head of state (President). While many of us have a rough idea of the power Merkel wields, little is known about the President. The German Basic Law, the constitution, sets out that the President is elected for a term of five years (with only one re-election being possible). To this end, a special assembly (Bundesversammlung) consisting of all members of the Bundestag – the national parliament housed in the historic Reichstag building – and the same number of people that have been elected by the state parliaments convenes no later than 30 days before the incumbent’s term ends. 931 of 1,239 members of the Bundesversammlung cast their ballots for Steinmeier. As President, he may not be member of the government or carry out any other profession. His duties include the conclusion of agreements with foreign governments, but the orders he would give would require validation by the Chancellor.
Steinmeier was the government nominee. With the possible exception of one, all German post-war federal governments have consisted of coalitions. In the twentieth century, the two largest parties – the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in conjunction with its Bavarian counterpart, the Conservative Social Union (CSU), on the one hand and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) on the other – formed a coalition only once, from 1966 to 1969. This was at the time of the student protests of 1968 and the formation of the extra-parliamentary opposition amidst fears of an un-democratic order forming. The perceived necessary evil of a ‘grand coalition’ was repeated from 2005 to 2009 and, once more, after 2013. Steinmeier served as Foreign Minister during both terms. After President Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and East German civil rights activist, announced last year that he would not stand for re-election, both parties were loath to nominate opposing candidates, lest they begin their campaign for the Bundestag prior to this summer. Although a junior partner in the coalition, the head of the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel, managed to push through the nomination of Steinmeier, whom the leadership of the CDU respected but accepted reluctantly.
This ostensibly minor triumph of the SPD adds more significance to this year’s presidential election in two ways that can be gleaned from an excerpt of Steinmeier’s acceptance speech, when he reflected on the remarks of a young Tunisian woman who said that Germany gave her hope, reprinted and loosely translated below:
Ist es nicht erstaunlich – ist es nicht eigentlich wunderbar – , dass dieses Deutschland, „unser schwieriges Vaterland“, wie Gustav Heinemann es mal nannte, ist es nicht wunderbar, dass dies Land für viele in der Welt ein Anker der Hoffnung geworden ist?
Wir machen anderen Mut – nicht weil alles gut ist in unserem Land. Sondern weil wir gezeigt haben, dass es besser werden kann!
- dass es nach Kriegen Frieden werden kann;
- und nach Teilung Versöhnung;
- und dass nach der Raserei der Ideologien so etwas einkehren kann wie politische Vernunft;
- dass uns vieles geglückt ist in unserem Land.
Is it not remarkable – is it not really wonderful – that this Germany, ‘our difficult fatherland’, as Gustav Heinemann once called it, is it not wonderful that this country has become an anchor of hope for many in the world?
We give courage to others – not because everything is good in our country. But because we have shown that it can become better!
That after war peace can come.
And after division reconciliation.
And that after the mania of ideologies something such as political reason can settle.
That we have been successful with many things in this country.
First, this presidential election gives an early start to the campaign for the election of the Bundestag this September. Whereas the President serves a term of five years, the Chancellor is elected by the Bundestag for a span of usually four. It can therefore happen that two elections take place in the same year, as in the case of 1969, when Heinemann, the last Social Democratic Minister prior to Steinmeier to become President, paved the way for West Berlin’s former Mayor Willy Brandt to become the first Social Democratic Chancellor in the Federal Republic.
History does not repeat itself, but Steinmeier’s election has given the SPD hope. In January, Gabriel announced that he would not be his party’s candidate for the Chancellorship, but step down for his friend Martin Schulz, the former President of European Parliament. The approval ratings for Schulz and the SPD have increased since. Confidently, Schulz has announced nothing less than making the SPD once more the strongest party in Germany and moving into the Chancellor’s Office this year as his goal. This is very ambitious, but does not seem as far-fetched as it would have a year ago.
Second, Steinmeier’s election may strengthen Germany’s political centre in perilous times. After the shock experiences of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election last year, the world seems to be moving to the far right. In 2013, Germany saw the founding of a right wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Initially placing its emphasis on critiquing European monetary policy, it has become a party of protest against the EU in general and the German government’s policies towards refugees in particular, deliberately attempting to draw racists into its ranks. Just last spring, its co-founder Alexander Gauland stated in an interview that the people considered Jerome Boateng a good football (soccer) player, but did not want a Boateng as their neighbour. Called out on this remark, Gauland retracted, stating that he had not attacked Boateng personally, deeming him a good example of integration. The very fact that Boateng, as the son of a Ghanaian father and a German mother, was no less German than Gauland eluded the AfD politician. Represented in 10 of 16 state legislatures, the AfD has very good chances of being voted into the Bundestag this year.
However, the presidential election has given German voters more options for choosing their Bundestag and, indirectly, Chancellor. Parts of Merkel’s own CDU and the CSU have opposed her policies of allowing over a million refugees into Germany in 2015 and she has had to rely on the SPD as well as those conservatives remaining loyal to her. With the strengthening of the SPD, there is more than the mere prospect of yet another grand coalition as disgruntled citizens give their vote to the AfD for want of an alternative. Although Schulz’s chances of victory remain small, the prospect of emulating the current model of the local Berlin government by forming a coalition with the Green and Left parties has become more of a viable political alternative at the national level. The election is becoming more one where voters can decide between Schulz and Merkel – who both stand for a strengthening of Europe – and less of a de facto referendum on Merkel’s policies.
As the former Foreign Minister, Steinmeier knows only too well that Germany may be the largest power to which the world looks for moderation. It is not just because of the similar trajectories that Steinmeier cites Heinemann. In office, Heinemann came to be known as the ‘President of the Citizens’, the Bürgerpräsident, for the popular support he enjoyed and for his strong identification with the German constitutional order. As much as the AfD and many other Germans – not just the party’s followers – have criticised Merkel for her policies towards refugees and expressed hostility towards Muslims, the German Basic Law fundamentally guarantees freedom of religion (Article 4) and the right to asylum (Article 16a). Heinemann would be an inspiration in honouring the presidential oath to uphold this order. Nothing could be more patriotic now.
Germany has come a long way since 1945. Mainstream politicians have begun to realise that a party of protest and racist clamour can undermine this achievement. Steinmeier’s election is the government’s attempt to shore up the political centre against extremism from the right. This should turn our gaze to Berlin for this year. No less than Europe’s future is at stake.