Tue May 27th, 2008 at 04:42:14 PM EST
Recently I wrote that the background of German figurehead President Horst Köhler calling financial markets "monsters" is: his re-election bid.
What was an expectation in that diary has now happened. Köhler officially declared his candidacy on last Thursday; he's got the declared support of the Union parties (Christian Democrats [CDU] and the Bavarian Christian Socialists [CSU]) and almost certainly that of the liberals (FDP). And on Monday, the SPD officially declared that they will again nominate the candidate they ran against Köhler last time, Gesine Schwan, to challenge the incumbent.
In parliamentary republics with figurehead Presidents, the President is meant to unite, as opposed to partisan prime ministers/chancellors. During their tenure, they are expected to rise above daily politics, and represent everyone. That part works out most of the time: figurehead Presidents tend to take at least the appearance of impartiality seriously, and tend to be very popular.
However, even their selection is meant to bring about wider representation, usually by requiring a supermajority of votes in the first round, so that hopefully parties won't make it a partisan issue. (In Germany, the electors are the members of the federal parliament and delegations from all 16 regional parliaments.) Now, how does that work out in practice? With hat tip to Fran in the Salon:
Presidency Row Deepens Rift in Merkel's Coalition
By SPIEGEL Staff
A row over who should be Germany's next ceremonial president has deepened divisions in Angela's Merkel's right-left coalition and fuelled concern that it is too weak to tackle major new issues ahead of the autumn 2009 election. But neither party is ready to pull the plug on the government.
The Social Democrats nominated politics professor Gesine Schwan on Monday to stand against conservative President Horst Köhler in an election by the country's parliament scheduled for May 2009.
The move to challenge an incumbent president who is standing for a second term is unprecedented in German politics and harbors risks for Angela Merkel's coalition of conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Unprecedented? At first sight, "SPIEGEL Staff" seems to suffer from amnesia. Here is a little review of challenges to past incumbents:
- 1954: KPD (communists) nominated Alfred Weber against incumbent Theodor Heuss. (Albeit with a mere 12 votes, that didn't matter anything.)
- 1964: FDP (liberals) nominated Ewald Bucher against incumbent Heinrich Lübke.
- 1979: incumbent Walter Scheel (FDP, elected in 1974 with then coalition partner SPD's support) doesn't stand for re-election, because he knew CDU gained the majority to vote in a challenger.
- 1999: incumbent Roman Herzog (CDU) faced a situation that was the mirror image of the one 20 years earlier, only with more certainty: Herzog's eventual successor, Johannes Rau (SPD), got a promise from his party boss (which the SPD kept to, even though the deal-brokering party boss fell out with Schröder in the meantime [and later became co-leader of the Left Party]).
- 2004: incumbent Johannes Rau (SPD) didn't run for re-election because of a potential challenge from the then conservative majority.
In fact, if you examine the above list, what is unprecedented is that an incumbent unsure of majority support doesn't stand down on his own!
Now, considering how enthusiastically they endorsed Köhler in 2004, "SPIEGEL Staff" may not suffer from amnesia, but spin on purpose...
Something the CDU/CSU does, too. They are very angry. As I told in the last diary, the situation is that the President will be chosen next year, but after the Bavaria state elections in a few months, the CDU+CSU+FDP majority behind Köhler will likely end.
Initial responses ranged from discussing an end to the Grand Coalition ("end without horror instead of horror without end") to claims that the SPD "made itself a puppet of the Left Party" (Schwan, herself no party leftie, would need the votes of the hard-leftists; then again, she already got those when losing narrowly to Köhler in 2004).
After the initial chaos, the CDU spinmeisters chose to push the "lack of leadership in the SPD" theme again (a rhetoric that actually may have contributed to the decision for Schwan, see my previous diary). Merkel for her part reportedly attacked the (ever less popular) SPD chairman by suggesting that he dances according to the tune of the leader of the SPD's left wing:
|"Manchmal weiß man gar nicht mehr, wen man morgens anrufen soll. Am besten gleich Frau Nahles?"||"Sometimes you don't know anymore whom to call in the morning. Would it be best to call Ms. [Andrea] Nahles right-away?"|
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To be fair to SPIEGEL, for German-speakers, here is a critical piece on Köhler, even if it bears the mark of a disappointed reformist (brought to you by nanne); and a positive article on Gesine Schwan's start of her presidency bid, where they don't note that Schwan's first veiled attacks on Köhler seem almost verbatim quotes of the previous SPIEGEL article.