German presidential race hots up

29th March 2004, Comments 0 comments

Elections for the largely ceremonial post of German president have in the past been essentially routine and dull affairs. But Gerhard Schroeder's selection of a feisty academic as the government candidate for the post, combined with a power struggle in the opposition, has given an unexpected edge to the race. Andrew McCathie writes on the battle for the presidency.

Gesine Schwan: fighting a tough campaign

Once a foregone conclusion, the race for Germany's largely ceremonial  presidency is heating up.

While former Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt appears to have fallen in behind the conservative opposition's candidate for the job, the former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Horst Koehler, the government's candidate has coming out fighing for the chance to take on the post.

With a reputation for putting up a strong fight, Germany's ruling Social Democrat-Green Party candidate, Gesine Schwan, has called for a public debate between herself and Koehler, who is favoured to win the job because of the opposition's control of the federal assembly which is is due to decide on the new president in May.    

But the opposition enjoys only a relatively slim majority on the assembly. A public debate between the two candidates might open up the race to become the next occupant of Berlin's presidential Bellevue Palace.

The battle for the presidency has made that much more interesting as it is linked to the campaign underway in the opposition parties for the choice of candiate to be the conservative standard bearer in the next national election.

Several leading opposition figures would have preferred the former Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and minister Wolfgang Schaeuble to have been nominated as the opposition's candidate for the presidency.

But the CDU chief appears to have had other plans with Koehler eventually emerging as their choice for president.

Horst Koehler: praised government's reform agenda

The problem for Merkel is that it is a secret vote for the presidency and her opponents in the opposition might see it as a chance to head off the momentum building behind her drive to become the opposition's Chancellor-candidate to challenge Gerhard Schroeder in 2006.   

Victory for Schwan, a member of  Schroeder's Social Democrats, in the presidential race would also probably kill off Merkel's chances of becoming Germany's first woman Chancellor as Germany's voters are unlikely to warm to the idea of having women filling the nation's two top positions.

Having launched what observers said was a combative campaign for a top university post in Berlin (she failed), Schwan has thrown herself into the battle to become president.
Traditionally, German presidents are supposed to stand above politics and represent the entire country. The office has few formal powers but can carry considerable moral authority.

Currently a university president in the German-Polish border town of Frankfurt an Oder, Schwan has already moved into high gear in the fight for the presidency by insisting that the President needs to have more than just economic know-how.

*quote1*She has also taken a somewhat strong stand on aspects of German history. 

In her presidential campaign, Schwan has also placed considerable emphasis on the need for improvements in Germany's hard-pressed education system.

This fits in neatly with the priorities that Schroeder has laid down for his government this year.

But this year's presidential race is more complicated than that.

Koehler himself has praised the far-reaching and unpopular economic reforms introduced by Schroeder and has insisted that Europe's biggest economy needs more surgery to improve its international competitiveness.

At the same time, however, Ex-Chancellor Schmidt has come out firmly on Koehler's side in the presidential race.

Schmidt, who led West Germany from 1974 to 1982, lauded Koehler's skills saying he had    "more economic understanding alone than the entire German political class put together".

The former Chancellor told the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, that he hoped that if elected Koehler would take a high profile in calling for needed economic reforms.

"They (the Schroeder government) will just have to put up with it if their policies are not working," said Schmidt, who is 85, and has always been known for his sharp tongue.

Germany's economy has stagnated over the past three years and unemployment is around 10 percent.

March 2004

Subject: German News,  Horst Koehler, Gesine Schwan

0 Comments To This Article