Germany – Former Foreign Minister and vice-Chancellor elected new federal president

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.

Plenary of the 16th Federal Convention, 12 February 2017 | photo via bundestag.de

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.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 14 February 2017.

Germany – The headache of choosing a presidential candidate

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 26 July 2016

When German Federal President Joachim Gauck declared that he would not run for a second term in February 2017, The Guardian described it as a ‘headache for Merkel‘. Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor best known for his work in overseeing the extensive archives of the former East German secret police 1991-2000, had been elected as a joint candidate of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, Green Party and Liberal Democrats (FDP) after his predecessor Christian Wulff resigned amidst allegations of corruption. Many had hoped that Gauck – who still enjoys support from all major parties in the Bundestag except DIE LINKE (successor to the East German communist party) – would run for a second term, thus sparing parties the need to find a new candidate so closely before the next general election due to be held in October 2017. Avoiding a signalling effect for potential post-election coalitions, together with parties’ desire to have their candidate elected by absolute majority in the first or second round (rather than by relative majority in the third and last round of voting) complicates the situation and creates headaches for all party leaders – not only for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German Federal Convention

The German Federal Convention 2012 meeting in the Reichstag building, Berlin | © bundespraesident.de

Since 2013, Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) hold a 71% majority in the Bundestag and form a grand coalition. Even though the Federal Convention – the electoral college convened for electing the German president – consists not only of members of the Bundestag but also the same number of delegates from state parliaments, both parties would have no problems to elect a joint candidate. Nevertheless, neither CDU/CSU nor SPD see this as an ideal option. With the exception of Joachim Gauck, first nominated by SPD and Greens in 2010, both parties have not nominated a joint candidate so far (rather, either party occasionally supported the re-election of the other’s incumbent). This time, too, both parties would most likely be happiest with a candidate clearly affiliated with or at least nominated only by them (not excluding support from a minor party). Nevertheless, the seat distribution the Federal Convention (see projection below) leaves little room for manoeuvre if parties want to see their candidate elected in the first two rounds. Neither CDU/CSU+FPD nor SPD+GREENS, who previously held majorities in the Federal Conventions and subsequently saw their candidates elected, hold a majority. Even a left-wing alliance of SPD, GREENS, DIE LINKE and the SSW (Danish Minority) would fall two votes short of an absolute majority.

German parties are generally cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future coalitions on the federal level. Thus, a cooperation of the SPD with far-left party DIE LINKE is unlikely because the SPD leadership has so far categorically denied federal-level coalition potential (despite cooperating with DIE LINKE on state level) – not only could it deter SPD voters, but the CDU/CSU would also likely try to use this pairing for their advantage in the electoral campaign. Similarly, the liberal FDP – although having been in coalitions with the SPD in the past – will likely try to avoid supporting a left-wing candidacy as it hopes to re-enter the Bundestag in 2017 by taking away voters from the right-wing/populist Alternative for Germany. Last, the often-floated option of cooperation between CDU/CSU and Greens is out of the question for similar reasons. Overall, a compromise candidate elected by CDU/CSU+SPD thus seems most likely.

Projection_Seat distribution in the German Federal Convention 2016

1260 seats total; 631 votes required in first and second round, relative majority in third and final round; for more information see http://www.wahlrecht.de/lexikon/bundesversammlung.html

Analysts have highlighted over the last months that parties, particularly the CDU/CSU, would like to see a ‘professional politician’ in the presidential office – although Joachim Gauck has not opposed the government in a major way, some MPs have criticised him for contradicting government positions and even went so far as to investigate means to ‘muzzle’ the president. The CDU/CSU also still lament the resignation of Horst Köhler in 2010 following public criticism of his statements regarding German military deployment which was put down party due to him not having a sufficiently think skin to withstand conflicts of this kind. Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) has been mentioned most consistently (even before Gauck’s announcement) as a potential candidate. Despite having been the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor in 2009 and serving as deputy party chairman, he is seen as a relatively party-neutral choice – the fact that he is by far the most popular German politican (71% approval) adds to his suitability. Interestingly, the second most popular politician, veteran politician and finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), is also frequently named as a potential candidate. Nevertheless, his hard line on Greek state debt makes him less presentable on an international level. Also, Schäuble is already 73 years old would thus also likely be unavailable for a second term in office. Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) has a number of supporters across the political spectrum, yet is likely more keen to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor than become Germany’s first female president. Last, some social democrats have suggested social science professor Jutta Allmendinger (SPD member), director of the prestigious Berlin Social Science Centre, as a candidate. Nevertheless, the SPD previously failed to see a similar candidate elected on two occasions. On suggestion of then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the SPD nominated professor Gesine Schwan, president of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt (Oder), for president in 2005 and 2009. Nevertheless, she failed to win and was involved in a number of controversies resulting in several SPD and Green electors refusing to cast their vote for her.

Until now, only the Free Voters – represented only in the state parliament of Bavaria and projected to send a mere 10 electors to Berlin next February – have officially nominated a candidate: Alexander Hold, a judge who gained national prominence by appearing in court room shows on German private TV station SAT 1, currently serving a local councillor and party faction leader for the Free Voters in the town of Kempten. There is little chance that Hold will gain more than the 10 votes of his party colleagues, but the nomination has already produced some headlines which might benefit the party. It would not be the first time that a party nominates a candidate know for their work on TV – in 2009 DIE LINKE nominated actor Peter Sodann as their candidate for president (he received 91 votes – two more than the total number of DIE LINKE delegates – in the first and only round of elections).

The race for president thus still remains open. In contrast to Estonia – where political leaders find themselves in a similar situation – however, there is still sufficient time for parties to find a candidate. On the other hand, a timely decision could mitigate the election’s signalling effect for the next Bundestag election and give parties more time to focus on their campaign. It is without question that all of them do not want to live with a headache for too long.

Germany – A muzzle for the president? President Gauck and the limits of freedom of speech(es)

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 19 November 2014

The election of Joachim Gauck’s election as Germany’s 11th Federal President was a novelty in many respects. Gauck was not only the first president from the former German Democratic Republic, but also the first non-partisan to ascend to the Germany’s highest office. Gauck himself promised to be ‘an uncomfortable president’ who would voice his opinion more often even if it contradicted the policies of the government or went counter to prevailing public opinion. His remarks towards the far-right were welcomed by public and politicians alike. Yet Gauck’s calls for the need for greater German military involvement abroad and criticism of the possibility of a leftist politician being elected minister-president of Thuringia have been met with opposition. Now coalition politicians are reportedly seeking ways to ‘muzzle’ the ‘uncomfortable president’.

Joachim Gauck during his speech after being elected president | photo via bundespraesident.de | © Jesco Denzel / Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung

The powers of the German presidency are generally very limited and the role of its incumbents is thus largely ceremonial with very little potential for independent political action. One of the few opportunities for German presidents to influence politics are their speeches and interviews and most office-holders to date have through these been able to install themselves as a ‘moral compass’ in the public debate. Due to his work as a Lutheran pastor, opposition activist and Federal Commissioner for dealing with the records of the Stasi (the secret police of the German Democratic Republic) during the 90s as well as his oratory skills incumbent president Joachim Gauck had been established as a notable public figure even before his election and received overwhelming public support for his candidacies (his first one was unsuccessful) for the country’s highest office. Since his inauguration in March 2012, several of Gauck’s speeches have been met with acclaim (also internationally, e.g. his speech on European integration), just like his clear stance against the extremist far-right. In the latter case, the German Constitutional Court even confirmed that Gauck was allowed to label members and followers of the extremist far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) ‘nutcases’ and had the right to free expression as long as he does not ‘take sides in an arbitrary manner’.

Despite Gauck’s general popularity, German politicians have recently criticised Gauck for overstepping his constitutionally prescribed role. In the first instance, this was due to his speech at the Munich Security Conference in January this year in which he called for greater German military engagement abroad. The German president does not even possess ceremonial powers with regard to the military or foreign policy and elites were thus unhappy with his remarks. The government was also not pleased with Gauck’s interpellations in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis (among others, Gauck accussed Russian president Vladimir Putin of breaking international law) and had to employ great diplomatic effort to keep open a channel of communication with the Russian leadership. It should be mentioned Gauck’s remarks were also unusual for other reasons. The German public is not only traditionally wary having their troops deployed abroad, but Gauck’s pre-predecessor Horst Köhler resigned after he felt unduly criticised for declaring that German military deployments abroad (which are usually labelled as ‘humanitarian’ in the German discourse) also served to secure the country’s economic interests.

President Gauck was faced with second wave of criticism when he told journalists that he would be ‘uncomfortable’ with seeing leftist politician Bodo Ramelow’s being elected as minister-president of the German state of Thuringia. While his remarks were generally less surprising, they too meant means that Gauck entered (politically) uncharted waters. Ramelow is local leader of ‘Die LINKE’ (“The Left”) a successor party to the United Socialist Party (SED) – the GDR’s party of power. While ‘Die LINKE’ has participated in a number of coalition governments in the East German states (and even tolerated a Social Democrat-Green minority government in the West), it has never nominated the minister-president. Given Gauck’s role in the GDR opposition movement – among others he was co-founder of the ‘New Forum’ opposition movement – and his work as Federal Commissioner for dealing with records of the Stasi (the GDR’s secret police) 1990-2000, his criticism of LINKE-led government is understandable. Nevertheless, it is the first time in German post-unification (potentially even post-war) history that a president has taken a public stance on the political situation in one of the 16 German states.

It is thus not a coincidence that it was revealed last week that Peter Gauweiler, a prominent member of parliament for the Christian Social Union (CSU; currently in government),commissioned the parliamentary research service to draft a legal opinion on ‘the competence of the president to make foreign policy statements’ (as Gauweiler’s CSU is fiercely opposed to ‘Die LINKE’, the focus on foreign policy alone is not surprising). The paper, which was leaked to a number of newspapers, clearly states that the president was not allowed to conduct an ‘alternative foreign policy’ and can be required to closely coordinate the content of public statements. While this describes the existing political practice (the general content of speeches is coordinated with the respective government ministries and the Chancellor’s office), the paper seems to open the possibility for a word-by-word coordination which would significantly reduce the presidents ability to influence political and public debates. Nevertheless, the opinion also tends towards rejecting a requirement for countersignature for speeches. While the vast majority of presidential decisions and actions is already subject to countersignature, the currently dominant opinion in legal scholarship argues against it.

It is unlikely that the government of parliamentary majority will initiate any steps towards formally restricting Gauck’s ability to make public statements. Nevertheless, the debate and the fact that the criticism has shifted from the fringes of the political spectrum (radical right and radical left) to mainstream parties should be food for thought for Gauck. While it is unclear whether he wants to seek re-election once his term ends in 2017 (he will be 77 years old by then), he might need be a more ‘comfortable’ president in any case to make sure that his words do not fall on deaf ears among those who can turn them into actions.