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Challenging a President

by DoDo 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


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?"

:: :: :: :: ::

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.

Hope you enjoyed the arcane details.

As a meta-comment on the present brouhaha, it seems to me that the CDU has an efficient media message coordination/spin machine (several CDU leaders talk the same BS within hours), while the SPD is a bumbling idiot in comparison.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue May 27th, 2008 at 04:45:58 PM EST
Why does the right majority behind Kohler end after the elections in Bavaria?

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 05:17:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Because the CSU is expected to drop back from over 60% to under 50%, and this shift in the composition of the delegation from the Bavarian state parliament could just be enough.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 05:29:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The SPD just continued to shoot itself in the foot.

Grumpy old man Franz Müntefering is the man world-famous for describing venture capitalists as "locusts"; but in truth he is a centrist and former right-hand man for Schröder, who was the architect of the current Grand Coalition and its first Vice-Chancellor. He then resigned last October, but grumbled about the leftward direction ever since.

Now, Münte couldn't keep himself from calling upon the party leadership to declare (again) that they won't cooperate with the Left Party after the next elections (September 2009)... keeping to a single message, no way with the SPD! Party leader Beck, as well as deputy party chairman and top party left figure Andrea Nahles responded by saying that the prior declaration on this should be enough.

Meanwhile, I give credit to SPIEGEL for writing down this:

Nicht sauber, aber effektiv: So hat er Merkel dazu provoziert, ihren präsidialen Kanzlergestus abzuwerfen und sich hinabzubegeben in die Koalitionskeilerei. Aus diesem präsidialen Habitus aber speist sich Merkels starker persönlicher Zuspruch in der Bevölkerung.Not clean, but effective: This way, he [Beck] provoked Merkel to throw off her presidential chancellor guise and lower helself into the coalition wedge-driving. Merkel's strong personal popularity in the population draws on this presidential behaviour.

Indeed Merkel, like Helmut Kohl before him, copies the habit of French Presidents to radiate the appearance of someone up and apart from daily political fights, instead of the party politician she is.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 05:55:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Zapatero is quite good at this, too: his vicepresident does all the hard talk.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 06:00:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes and it's not that 'hard':  Short and to the point, like "No", is as good as it gets.

If you want the job done right, get a woman to do it.

<snarking and running>

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sun Jun 15th, 2008 at 01:21:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Social Democrats don't do "narratives" and they act as if "staying on message" were dishonest. Why is that?

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 06:02:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Schwan, herself no party leftie, would need the votes of the hard-leftists;

Her relations with the hard left and the SPD left have historically been atrocious. Arguably the Linke has better ideological reasons to oppose her than the CDU.

by MarekNYC on Tue May 27th, 2008 at 06:39:28 PM EST
I touched on this in the last diary; here in a bit more detail.

The SPD's first post-war Chancellor was the legendary Willy Brandt. He is most noted for a foreign policy paradigm shift of normalising relations with the East Bloc. Yet his undoing as chancellor was the unmasking of a high-profile East German spy in his personal staff. Brand's successor was Helmut Schmidt, from the party's right wing, both economically and in foreign policy (he used to be the SPD faction's hawkish foreign policy specialist), who prides himself of the behind-the-scenes instigation of the NATO Double-Track Decision that kicked off the eighties arms race (for details see this comment).

These two men continued to define the party into the Kohl era: Brandt remained party boss until 1987, while Schmidt became chief editor of liberal weekly Die Zeit and influenced a number of SPD leaders (including one youngster named Gerhard Schröder). Now Gesine Schwan was one of the latter: she was a founder of the SPD's right wing (the so-called Seeheimer Kreis = Seeheim Circle), an avowed Catholic, a vocal anti-communist and NATO supporter, and a loud critic of Brandt's line. But Brandt gained overhand by 1984, when Schwan wasn't re-elected into the SPD's policy-setting "Basic Values Commission", in practice ending her career as politician.

Still, two decades later, Schwan's relations with the post-communist PDS (one of the originators of the Left Party) weren't that frosty. In the 2004 vote for President, she lost to Horst Köhler 589:604 - presumably collecting the votes of all SPD (458), Green (90), Danish minority (1) and PDS (31) voters present (plus at least 9 right-wingers or liberals). And upon declaring her cnadidature in 2009, Schwan said (watch video in the Die Welt article):

"...sehe eine realistische Chance, und dazu will ich um Stimmen aus allen Parteien werben - aus allen Parteien - namentlich auch aus der Linken.""...I see a realistic chance, and for that, I want to canvass for votes from all parties - from all parties - namely also including from the Left Party."
"Es wird keine Absprache mit der Partei der Linken geben. Ich werde sie, wie gesagt, auch öffentlich weiter kritisieren. Wer mich von den Linken wählt, hat sich entschieden für konstruktive Politik, für die Demokratie." "There will be no prior agreements with the Left Party. I will, as I said, also continue to criticise them publicly. Those in the Left Party who vote for me decided for constructive politics, for democracy."

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 04:41:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As a final addition from my morning reading, some bio details that caught my eyes in SPIEGEL's mini-profiles on the candidates (which appear to have been plagiarized from the two's German Wikipedia articles).

Early in WWII, Köhler's ethnic-German family was deported from areas Stalin grabbed from Romania, and settled in the Polish village of Skierbieszów, which the Nazis cleansed of Jews. Horst Köhler was born there in 1943, and his family became refugees again the next year. They settled in Leipzig, but with the emergence of Soviet-controlled East Germany, fled on to West Germany.

Around the same time, Gesine Schwan's parents participated in the religious resistance to the Nazis that centered on the Lutheran Church (though her mother was a Catholic). In the last year of WWII, they were hiding a Jewish girl.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 06:05:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So here we have another country where the supposed uniting presidential role leads to poor choices, in spite this being a country whose citizens take their decisions seriously.

It seems that figureheads are at best a distraction. Politics has to be divisive, because different social groups have opposing interests.


Could the Eurovision Song Contest be used as a formula to select powerless presidents? Only that the competitors should be humorists, not singers. Portugal could offer a very nice german-descendant comedian.

by findmeaDoorIntoSummer on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 04:24:14 AM EST
the supposed uniting presidential role leads to poor choices

In what sense? Köhler was definitely a poor choice from my hard-left point of view, but he is very popular in Germany: the last poll saw 85% approval, I think. Even from my perspective, the damage he did was limited, with no influence on actual decisions and switching to more left-friendly populism in his speeches more recently. Prior German presidents were very widely popular, too. I myself rather liked Richard von Weizsäcker (President 1984-1994), despite coming from the CDU. Hungary also has a similar system, and the Presidents topped politician approval rate lists most of the time (myself, I liked the first, detested the second, am currently so-so about the third who is the incumbent).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 05:27:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the sense that they tend to have a middle-of-the-road perspective. Presidents generally act as semi-retired.

For example, in Portugal, we have had as most proeminent presidents the two most active former prime-ministers. When they do arrive to presidency, they take a much more relaxed attitude. Too much relaxed.

Why is that? I do not know for certain, but I bet on the posture they have to assume as presidential candidates - which is basically a two party system. A presidential campaign is, among other things, a training camp for the candidates to "let go" their personal beliefs.

French presidential campaigns are something else.

by findmeaDoorIntoSummer on Fri May 30th, 2008 at 03:24:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah! Then we have a misunderstanding. I was speaking about parliamentary republics with figurehead Presidents; Presidents whose role is largely to appear as an inspiring father/mother figure. Portugal, like France (and Romania and Austria and Poland) are mixed parliamentary-Presidential systems; your Presidents are not figureheads but Presidents with some real power. This is emphasized by the fact that you have them elected by the people, rather parliament or another indirectly representative body of electors. (Well OK, I am drawing a fine line here; Finland's and Slovakia's popularly elected Presidents may be called figureheads, and Portugal's may be not that much more powerful than those.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri May 30th, 2008 at 06:25:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, it makes total sense now. Thank you, DoDo.
You do very well in noting the variations in semi-presidential regimes across Europe.

Portuguese presidents do have some real powers, rarely used. Namely the power to throw down government and simultaneously order general elections. This has happened once - considering only the period after the 1974 revolution -, 3 years ago.
They cannot veto laws, only demand a confirmation from parliament, or question proposed law's compatibility to the constitution, which will be decided by a council of judges (Constitutional Court).

by findmeaDoorIntoSummer on Sat May 31st, 2008 at 05:27:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That sounds like not much more extensive than the powers of a figurehead President. In which case, I am curious: what would you expect from a more activist, less middle-of-the-road President? Sending back more laws to Parliament, and voicing opinions about law proposals more loudly?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat May 31st, 2008 at 12:26:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes. To have the right vision - i.e. to have the ability to see through the mystifications of the corporate media - and to express it frequently, EVEN if its opinions are not shared by most of the population (who cannot see through due to no stimulation of critical thinking).

Id est, to behave as a political figure, instead of someone above (or post-) politics.

by findmeaDoorIntoSummer on Mon Jun 2nd, 2008 at 05:57:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I love it..

A pleasre

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Wed May 28th, 2008 at 06:52:05 AM EST
According to the first poll out on the issue, 60% have no problem with a Federal President co-elected with Left Party votes, and only 33% do.

Gesine Schwan said that she wants to canvass for Left Party votes with a personal visit to the party. She recalled that she did the same with the PDS in 2004. Beleaguered Left Party co-leader Gregor Gysi (allegations about him having been an informant of the East German secret service came up again) responded with okay, but he drove in a thorn by saying he also wants a meeting with SPD leader Beck, so that the latter explains why they should vote for their candidate when the SPD again wants to say no to any federal-level cooperation with them.

As for the Greens, former enironment minister and deputy faction leader Jürgen Trittin declared that his party shouldn't vote for Köhler, because Köhler's election was clearly nominated to foreshadow a CDU/CSU+FDP coalition.

Meanwhile, all three opposition parties attacked the government in parliament on the basis of not governing, just (in)fighting. The FDP demanded a government declaration about what the government plans to do until the elections. Left Party co-leader Oskar Lafontaine [the one who promised Rau the Presidency back when he used to be SPD chairman] missed action to give the majority their share in the economic upswing. And Green faction leader Fritz Kuhn said it succintly:

"Das aktuelle Regierungsprogramm heißt Streiten, Vertagen, Aussitzen""The present government programme is: infight, adjourn, sit out"

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu May 29th, 2008 at 10:26:58 AM EST
his party shouldn't vote for Köhler

Before I'm mistaken: that doesn't mean a vote for Schwan, at least not in the first round; the Greens may nominate someone themselves. (Unless Köhler's majority depends on 1-2 votes, I think they should.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu May 29th, 2008 at 10:29:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - Challenging a President

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.

Gesine Schwan does not blame Köhler for being too little of a reformer, though (and neither do I). Your formulation could give that impression. She's blaming Köhler for his empty, bland populism, which was also what I found to be the compelling part of SPIEGEL's analysis.

The president is perhaps the only institution in Germany whose function is co-equally in the service the state, the constitution, and the people (in my view). When Köhler engages in bland anti-political criticism of the government and the parliament (without, to stress, any substantial policy or political or institutional disagreement behind it), he's being a bad president.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Thu May 29th, 2008 at 01:22:15 PM EST
Your formulation could give that impression

That's right; wasn't intended, bad sentence formulation.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu May 29th, 2008 at 02:48:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Further, I found most of Dirk Kurbjuweit's SPIEGEL op-ed compelling, as I read the disappointed reformist more between the lines than in them (it comes up explicitely in just two paragraphs). Even on the issue of Köhler's bland anti-political spin, I won't disagree with what you say or Schwan said, or half of what Kurbjuweit wrote, but he went further with "standing clearly on the side of politics".

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu May 29th, 2008 at 03:01:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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