The election of ex-IMF chief Horst Koehler as Germany's new president is likely to add to the pressure on Gerhard Schroeder as he struggles to overcome record low opinion poll ratings, tackle high unemployment and to keep the nation's economy on a growth path. Leon Mangasarian reports.
Horst Koehler: setting down markers for economic reform
Koehler, who headed the International Monetary Fund from 2000 until 2004, was elected as the opposition conservative candidate by the Federal Convention which meets every five years to choose Germany's mainly ceremonial head of state.
Schroeder's Social Democratic (SPD) candidate - university director Gesine Schwan - failed to muster a majority due to opposition domination of parliament's upper chamber.
Moving swiftly to turn up heat on the government, Koehler used his acceptance speech in Berlin's 19th century Reichstag to pressure the Chancellor to forge ahead with economic liberalisation.
"I view fundamental reform of our nation as necessary and overdue," said Koehler to conservative applause, adding: "As an economist I'm concerned over the state of the German economy."
Koehler said Germans needed to get over their "angst" regarding change and, in a jibe at the left, said more trust was needed in the strength of freedom.
Conservatives hailed Koehler's victory as the beginning of the end for Schroeder's centre-left government which has been in power since 1998.
*quote1*They point to a similar situation in 1969 in which the election of SPD president Gustav Heinemann paved the way for SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt's election only months later after the collapse of a wobbly grand coalition.
"Federal president elections are often a harbinger for a power shifts and given the state of (Schroeder's) government all signs are that this again will be the case," said Friedrich Merz, deputy Christian Democratic leader in parliament.
But nobody expects such a swift collapse of Schroeder's SPD-Greens alliance and the Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) says the presidential vote is milestone for Germany's next general election due in 2006.
Schroeder's SPD crashed in defeat in Hamburg state elections earlier this year and with a further 13 state, regional and European Parliament elections in 2004 still to come the omens appear grim.
The SPD has hovered around 25 percent in all polls for months, compared with almost 50 percent for the opposition CDU/CSU.
Germany's economy has been in stagnation for the past three years and hopes of a revival may be dashed due to weakening business confidence at home and rising oil prices threatening the world economy on which Germany depends as a major export nation.
The German jobless rate is almost 11 percent, close to where it was when Schroeder took power almost six years.
Koehler - who will only be Germany's second non-professional politician as head of state in the post-war era - looks set to be sharp change from outgoing SPD President Johannes Rau.
A devout Christian, Rau sought to mediate in the tradition of Germany's post-war consensus system.
Germany's president may have far fewer powers than the US or French presidency - but the post has considerable moral authority to set the public agenda.
For Chancellor Schroeder a Koehler presidency promises to be prickly and defeat for his candidate is a bad omen in the run-up to next month's European Parliament election.
In past weeks Koehler has taken stands on turning around Germany's stagnant economy - with almost 11 percent unemployment - which are deeply unpopular with Schroeder's SPD.
On the touchy question of imposing longer working hours for Germans who mostly have a 35 or 36-hour work week, Koehler flatly says: "It's necessary."
Regarding biotech, Koehler dismisses widespread public fears and says decisions must be made "on economic grounds."
Koehler argues charging fees for Germany's largely free-of-charge universities cannot be taboo as it is for most SPD leaders.
After years in Washington, Koehler is also bluntly undiplomatic about his analysis of the US-led war in Iraq.
He says the US "behaved arrogantly" in Baghdad and that "power had gone to the heads of the Americans."
Koehler, who is married with two children, looks younger than his 61 years.
His previous posts include deputy German finance minister, head of Germany's public sector Savings Bank Association and president of the London European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Koehler was born in Skierbieszow, Poland in 1943 to ethnic German parents forced to flee their farm in Romania during World War II.
The family joined German refugees leaving Poland in 1945 ahead of the advancing Soviet Red Army and Koehler spent his first 10 years in Leipzig in communist East German before his family settled in West Germany.
"Patriotism and being open to the world are not fundamentally opposed," said Koehler who closed his acceptance speech with the words: "God bless our nation."
[Copyright Expatica 2004]
Subject: German news, Horst Koehler, Gerhard Schroeder