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.

Estonia – Six weeks before the presidential elections, there is no clear front-runner

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 19 July 2016

The date for Estonia’s next presidential election has been set for 29 August 2016, with 24 September determined as a possible follow-up date should voting in parliament prove inconclusive. Incumbent Toomas Hendrik Ilves is not allowed to run again, having served two consecutive terms from 2006-2011 and 2011-2016. Over the last year, a field of potential candidates has blossomed, yet until now the it is still difficult to tell the wheat from the weeds or to speculate who will become Ilves’ successor.

Election of the Estonian president 2006 in the electoral college | © Riigikogu 2006

Election of the Estonian president 2006 in the electoral college | © Riigikogu 2006

The Estonian president is elected by parliament and except for the 1992 election – when the first round was exceptionally held by popular vote with a runoff held in parliament – parliament has three attempts to elect a candidate with a two-thirds majority of its members, i.e. 68 out of 101 members. If parliament fails to elect a candidate, the election passes on to an electoral college consisting of all members of parliament and roughly two-and-a-half times as many representatives from local parliaments and city councils (the number of representatives is based on population size – in 2016 there will be 234 local representatives). In the electoral college, only an absolute majority is necessary to elect a candidate in two rounds of voting. New candidates can be suggested in the first and second round of voting in parliament and in the first round of voting in the electoral college, making it possible for surprise candidates to emerge (and in the case of Arnold Rüütel, president 2001-2006, even win) at a relative late stage.

Parties, candidates and the public

Until now, there is only one confirmed candidate for the presidency: The Centre Party has nominated Mailis Reps, a 41-year old former minister of education and deputy chairman of the party who supports popular presidential elections. Interestingly, Reps beat long-time party leader and one-time Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar in the party internal ballot for the nomination by a 90:78 margin. The Centre Party however remains an outcast in the Estonian parliament – despite its continuous electoral success – and is eyed with suspicion by other parties due to its close links with the Russian minority and contacts to Vladimir Putin’s ‘United Russia’. Thus, it is unlikely that Reps will eventually take the presidency.

The names of several other candidates have been mentioned over the last year, yet as 21 members of parliament are needed to receive a nomination, only the Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Roivas would be able to formally nominate another candidate of their own accord (the internal nomination of Mart Helme by the ‘Conservative People’s Party’ which holds only seven seats in the Riigikogu is thus largely inconsequential). Roivas on the other hand will likely not try to claim the presidential office for his own party but give it to either of the junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats or the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union. The Social Democrats have informally nominated Riigikogu speaker and veteran politician Eiki Nestor as their own candidate, while the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union want to put forward former Chancellor of Justice, Allar Jõks. Public opinion however still complicates the situation for the coalition. Despite having never been formally nominated or endorsed, foreign secretary Marina Kaljurand (independent; nominated to the cabinet by the Reform Party) has topped opinion polls for months as the public’s preferred president. Former Prime Minister and EU Commissioner as well as Reform Party co-founder Siim Kallas has also declared his willingness to be a presidential candidate but has not received any endorsement from the party so far. A joint candidate of Reform Party, Social Democrats and Pro Patria and Res Publica seems to be the most likely outcome of the election, yet it will likely only be decided in the electoral college (until now, Ilves’ reelection in 2011 was the only time that the Riigikogu elected a president without the help of the college).

Marina Kaljurand (middle) with Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (l.) and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (r.) | © president.ee

Marina Kaljurand (middle) with Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (l.) and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (r.) | © president.ee

The future of the presidency: Popular elections unlikely

President Ilves, although not always unequivocally liked by parties and citizens, leaves large foot steps to follow. He is an internationally renowned expert of cyber security and as a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States brought a great deal of diplomatic skill to the role which helped him to make the country considerably more visible. The discussion about a future president is very much influenced by that role, with Prime Minister Roivas and others stressing that any potential candidate would need to have international experience and know their way around issue of foreign and defence policy (especially the latter has been rising in importance for the small Baltic nation in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and disputes with Russia over borders). In turn, Mailis Reps, who already as a education minister was criticised for lack of experience, has little to offer in this regard and thus stressed that in her view the president should be more active in domestic politics – a view not shared by the majority of politicians and very much counter to the development of constitutional practice over the last 20 years as my own research showed. Reps proposal to introduce popular presidential elections, a change equally favoured by Mart Helme of the ‘Conservative People’s Party’ is thus also unlikely to be implemented – previous projects for constitutional amendments proposed by the Centre Party as well as the first presidents, Lennart Meri, were all unsuccessful.