On Sunday, 12 February 2017, the German Federal Convention elected two-time Foreign Minister and former vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the new German Federal President. Given that Steinmeier (Social Democratic Party – SPD) was the joint candidate of the ‘grand’ government coalition of SPD and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), his election with almost 75% of votes is not surprising. What is more interesting about this election is its potential signalling power for the Bundestag (general) election in autumn 2017 and discussions about the role of the German president.
Following the announcement of president Joachim Gauck, elected with in February 2012 following the resignation of Christian Wulff in the wake of corruption allegations, selecting a candidate was a tricky issue for the coalition government. German parties have generally been cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future (or continued) coalitions on the federal level. SPD and CDU/CSU have only infrequently supported the same candidate (exceptions are the re-elections of Theodor Heuss [Free Democratic Party] in 1954, Heinrich Lübke [CDU] in 1964, and Richard von Weizsacker [CDU] in 1989, as well as the election of Joachim Gauck [non-partisan] in 2012). During all previous ‘grand coalitions’ between Social and Christian Democrats, both parties rather supported different candidates in alliance with either Free Democrats (FDP) or Greens with a view of forming the next federal government together with them. The joint nomination of then Foreign Minister and previous vice-Chancellor Steinmeier is thus a novelty in so far as it is not the re-election of a popular president or election prominent non-partisan (such as Gauck who a majority of Germans would have already preferred to Wulff in 2010). At the time, Chancellor and CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel as well as CSU leader and minister-president of Bavaria Horst Seehofer may have agreed to Steinmeier’s candidacy hoping that this would eliminate a strong and popular rival in the next federal elections. However, with the recent nomination of Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament (2012-2017), as candidate for Chancellor and party chairman, the SPD has recently experienced a increase in popularity which could now interact favourably with the prestige of Steinmeier’s election. Although the SPD is still far from beating the CDU/CSU, it could gain a significantly larger vote share than initially expected. Both Steinmeier and Schulz have also been outspoken critics of US president Donald Trump and the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), while Merkel has had to maintain a more stateswoman-like attitude towards the new president and may still hope for some CDU-turned-AfD-voters to return.
The fact that Steinmeier’s first round victory was not surprising aside, the voting results for other candidates and discussions accompanying the election were almost equally as interesting. Contrary to many other European parliamentary systems, the German president is not exclusively elected by parliament and the Federal Convention – the electoral college only convened to elect the president – is not dominated by the members of the federal parliament. It consists of the members of the Bundestag and the same number of electors nominated by the 16 state parliaments in accordance with the population size (thus, the Federal Convention does not practice the same asymmetry as the Federal Council, Germany’s quasi-upper chamber and representation of state governments at federal level). Electors do not need to be members of state parliaments, so that parties also regularly nominate various VIPs – this time including football coach Joachim Löw, actress Veronika Ferres and well-known drag queen and activist Olivia Jones (aka Oliver Knobel). In the past, these elections were usually the time for editorials and opposition politicians to call for a popular election of the president. Yet this year, hardly any such proposals were voiced, likely in connection with the recent experiences in the United States, but also (and likely more prominently) Austria and the high support for Marine Le Pen in France. In fact, it was the fear of the rise of another populist leader that led the authors of the German post-war constitution to institute an indirect election of the president.
Thanks to the the inclusion of state representatives, Steinmeier was not the only candidate. Leftist party Die LINKE (also represented in the Bundestag) nominated well-known political scientist and poverty expert Christoph Butterwegge, the Alternative for Germany nominated its deputy leader Albrecht Glaser and the Free Voters from Bavaria nominated laywer and TV judge Alexander Hold. Although not represented in any German state parliament, the satirical party “Die Partei” also had its candidate in the running – Engelbert Sonneborn, 79-year old father of party leader and MEP Martin Sonneborn. This was thanks to the fact that the endorsement of a single member is sufficient for nominating a candidate, in this case the endorsement of a single Pirate Party deputy of the state legislature in North-Rhine Westphalia. Neither of these candidates came even close to endangering Steinmeier’s victory, yet notably all of them – except Sonneborn – received more votes than those of the parties supporting them. Furthermore, 103 (or 8.2%) electors abstained – while these likely came from CDU/CSU electors, it is difficult to point and may also include a number of SPD, FPD and Green electors who were disappointed with the lack of options (when all but Die LINKE and far-right National Democratic Party did not support the election of Joachim Gauck in 2012, the number of abstentions even reached 108).
Last, the address of Bundestag president Norbert Lammert, who chairs the proceedings of the Federal Convention ex-officio, received almost as much attention as Steinmeier’s acceptance speech. Lammert used the traditional opening statements for thinly veiled criticism of the policies of US president Donald Trump and the populist rhetoric of the Alternative for Germany, triggering discussions among legal experts whether he had violated his duty to remain neutral (see here [in German]; interestingly, this incident shows some parallels to discussions about statements by House of Commons speaker John Bercow in the UK).
The election of Steinmeier will not change the generally harmonious relationship between the presidency and the coalition government. However, Steinmeier may either try to assume a more internationally visible role than his predecessors – or he might be coaxed into doing do. Only recently, Steinmeier was still involved in negotiating major international treaties and he is well-connected and respected. While this may lay the foundation for more independent political action, the German constitution and established political practice (to which he can be expected to adhere) limit the potential for unilateral action and require him to coordinate intensively with the Chancellor and Foreign Ministry. The latter two might therefore also be tempted to use the new president to some degree – have criticism of Trump and other populist leaders delivered through the president while remaining neutral themselves.