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Opposition in disarrayas nomination goes awry

3 March 2004

BERLIN – Germany’s conservative opposition was forced to concede Wednesday that it had failed to reach agreement to nominate Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician Wolfgang Schaeuble for the German presidency.

Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber, head of the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), made public what had become widely apparent when he said that the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) had remained staunchly opposed to Schaeuble.

FDP chief Guido Westerwelle had regrettably rejected Schaeuble, Stoiber said in brief remarks to the press.

This was not exactly the way the German opposition camp’s spinmeisters had mapped this week’s activities.

After the CDU swept to majority power in the northern city-state of Hamburg in Sunday’s elections for the first time ever, while giving Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats a severe whipping, this should be a time of strutting and high-fiving for the CDU.

Instead, only three days after the Sunday triumph, the CDU and its sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, were the target of angry and derisive headlines in the press – all over the chaos in the parties’ efforts to agree on a presidential candidate.

The disarray broke into the open on Tuesday after high-ranking sources in the CDU-CSU camp had said they had agreed on CDU politician Wolfgang Schaeuble, despite the fact that a further opposition party, the Free Democrats (FDP), were opposed to him.

But then, a few hours later, CDU leader Angela Merkel had to go before the press and issue a denial of an agreement.

Then she headed into late-night “summit talks” with FDP leader Guido Westerwelle and CSU leader Edmund Stoiber to try to reach an agreement, only to emerge in the wee hours Wednesday in defeat.

“The only result is that I would like to go home now,” a weary- looking Merkel said.

If Merkel was trying to convince people of her crisis-management abilities, then the on-again, off-again developments in her camp over the nomination was not exactly something to put in her resume.

“Chaos in the Candidate Search” was the headline in the Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “Stop the Haggling on Schaeuble” demanded the Hamburg daily Abendblatt, while the tabloid paper in Hamburg, the Morgenpost, called it “The Wretched Game With Schaeuble”.

Even the conservative daily Die Welt, normally more lenient to the conservative opposition, said: “Cacaphony in the Union and FDP”.

The irony of the matter is that the uproar is all over a nomination for a post which is only largely ceremonial.

The president is supposed to be a personality broadly palatable to the overall German public, standing above everyday politics while personifying a kind of moral authority in representing the country. But the office itself has little power.

What is at stake in Germany is the CDU/CSU jockeying for position in preparing for what the conservative camp believes will come their time to wrest power from Schroeder’s embattled Social Democrat-Greens coalition in Berlin.

The presidential election is to be a first tangible and highly symbolic step towards that aim. The script, however, does not call for disarray in the opposition ranks.

While in the opposition in the Bundestag, the lower house of the national parliament, the CDU, CSU and FDP hold power in the upper house, the Bundesrat. This body represents the 16 federal states, most of them run by the CDU, CSU and FDP in various coalitions.

With that majority, plus their seats in the Bundestag, the CDU, CSU and FDP can decide the next president when the Federal Assembly meets 23 May to vote on a successor to President Johannes Rau.

But first, the CDU, CSU and FDP must agree on who they want. And has happened so often in the past in German politics, the tiny FDP is making the most of the king-making leverage in blocking an agreement.

By noon Wednesday, CSU leader Edmund Stoiber was pointing his accusatory finger at the FDP in announcing that Schaeuble’s candidacy had fallen through. Stoiber doggedly insisted that he was “optimistic that we will succeed in finding a candidate jointly supported by the CDU/CSU and FDP”.

Barely had he said that, one question suddenly began making the rounds in Berlin: “Annette Who?”

The question refers to Annette Schavan, the Culture Minister of the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg and deputy head of the CDU and now prominently mentioned as the party’s next candidate for German president.

The good news for CDU leader Angela Merkel: Schavan may be acceptable to the FDP. The bad news for Merkel: Schavan might not be agreeable to the CSU. All three parties can expect another round of bashing in the newspaper headlines on Thursday.

Subject: German news