Carsten Brzeski's blog

Germany: First greetings from 2017 election year

The German government yesterday agreed on supporting Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the next federal President.

The government yesterday finally agreed on foreign minister and social-democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier as their common candidate to succeed President Joachim Gauck. Earlier this summer, President Gauck had announced he would not run for a second term. The government’s decision now makes Steinmeier the poised successor to Gauck. Obviously, the so-called Federal Convention (a combined assembly of the lower and the upper house of parliament) still has to vote on the next president on 12 February, but given that the parties of the federal government coalition hold more than 70% of the votes, Steinmeier’s move into office only seems to be a formality.

Steinmeier is currently the most popular German politician, and would become president. However, let’s not forget that even though the president is according to the German constitution the head of state, the role is rather ceremonial. The federal chancellor is the country’s leading political figure.

For the SPD, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, Steinmeier’s nomination is a small victory. Initially, Merkel tried to find a conservative candidate but her preferred candidate, Bundestag speaker Norbert Lammer, declined the post. Probably aware of the fact that the last two nominations were not the most intriguing episodes of her political life, Chancellor Merkel chose the candidate with the highest chances to win and the lowest potential to cause new tensions within the government. Remember that current President Gauck had not been Merkel’s first choice and only got into office as his predecessor Christian Wulff (Merkel’s candidate) had stepped down after only 19 months in office. Also, a welcome side-effect of the Steinmeier nomination could be for Ms Merkel that the SPD will miss the currently most popular politician in the upcoming election campaign. In this respect, it will be interesting to see how the SPD will fill the post of foreign minister after 12 February. The party has not yet decided on who will be the front-runner for the federal elections. It looks as if the choice is down to either the party leader and minister of economic affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, or the president of European Parliament, Martin Schulz. The latter could try to gain more national attention by temporarily succeeding Steinmeier as foreign minister.

Half a year ahead of the national elections, the presidential vote has more than only a symbolic character. It will be a first test case for the political mood. In this regards, yesterday’s nomination shows Merkel’s willingness to compromise. It also shows that for both coalition partners currently the most preferred option is to continue the current coalition. None of the two coalition partners tried to use the presidential nomination as a test case for a new partnership.

Still, the nomination was only the very first appetizer in a long pre-election campaign. The next steps will be whether Chancellor Merkel will run for another term in office and who will be the front-runner of the SPD. Then, all parties will need to define their strategies on how to tackle increasing populism and how to gain the popular vote. German politics should start to trigger international interest more often in the next weeks and months.