German president: All good things go by three?

German president: All good things go by three?

The president in Germany is elected for five years. In theory. The two latest presidents, Horst Köhler and Christian Wulff, both chosen by Chancellor Angela Merkel, stepped down ahead of time. Köhler stepped down out of personal reasons while Wulff was forced to after months of accusations that he was a bargain hunter; in the end, the prosecutors in Hannover even asked to lift his immunity, marking a first in German history. 

Additionally, there were also several cases where Wulff tried to intimidate media outlets (Bild and Welt) not to publish certain articles about his financial benefits and invitations by businessmen. The call to the mailbox of Bild Editor-In-Chief Kai Diekmann was made from Qatar, just before giving a speech on the importance of freedom of the press for a democracy. This could have been funny if it weren’t so serious. 

Wulff finally stepped down Feb. 17, at least two months too late. And it seems he still has not understood that it was not the bad press that hunted him down, but his mistakes that were responsible for the mess.

The stepping down not only creates consequences for him personally, with his political career finishing at the age of 52; the institution of the presidency has also suffered, with the moral and honest authority becoming an immoral and dishonest one, making Wulff more a topic for satirical TV programs, cartoons and the ongoing carnival than serious political debate.

This will make it difficult for his successor to regain the lost trust among the population. And finally, it does have consequences for the coalition which elected him.

According to Article 54 of the German Constitution, a new president needs to be elected within one month. It won’t be easy to find an appropriate candidate that is accepted broadly and is not just the candidate of the governing coalition, which has a tiny majority in the assembly, which elects the president.

Since the president should be impartial and above party lines, it can hardly be a member of the current government (like Wolfgang Schäuble or Thomas de Maizière), a person from too far to the left or right and, as a potential moral authority, not someone who was involved in scandals in the past. The example Köhler showed was that it should rather be a professional (former) politician and not a career changer. And, as more and more voices say, it should finally be a woman. This makes the list of possible candidates not really vast. 

When Wulff was elected in 2010, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Greens presented another candidate, Joachim Gauck, an East German dissident and highly-respected personality.

He could still be a candidate, but it is very unlikely that Merkel and the government would agree on him because that would make it look like accepting that choosing Wulff was a mistake from the start. But the government has understood that now it is necessary to have a candidate that both the SPD and Greens can also accept, meaning they will not push through a party candidate. 

And as natural this might seem, it won’t be so easy for the government because the small coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) has been in an ongoing crisis since the 2009 elections that brought the party down from almost 15 percent to a current low of around 3 percent. But too much harmony between the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the SPD could be interpreted as preparing the way for a “grand coalition” for the upcoming elections in fall 2013.

But still, Merkel’s position is not too uncomfortable; she acts with a small majority and can use the next president to also approach future possible coalition partners irrespective of sensitivities over the FDP, which might have difficulties even making it into the next Parliament because of the 5 percent threshold. And for the SPD and Green opposition, it is also a comfortable situation because they can argue that it doesn’t work without them. 

All eyes are now on Merkel and who she will present as a compromise candidate to be elected by March 18 at the latest. It is the third president chosen mainly by her. A German saying goes that “All good things go by three.” Now it’s up to Merkel to prove this. 

Ekrem E. Güzeldere works for the European Stability Initiative in Istanbul.