Brewing Political Fight Germany's President Köhler Wants a Second Term

German President Horst Köhler said on Thursday he would seek a second term. The position is largely a symbolic one, but with the Social Democrats poised to name an opponent, the campaign could become bitterly political.


German President Horst Köhler has said he will run for a second term.
AP

German President Horst Köhler has said he will run for a second term.

The office of president is meant to be largely symbolic in Germany, floating above the rough and tumble of political bickering with only occasional moral reminders and high-minded speeches. But on Thursday, Germany took a step closer to a drawn out fight for the office which would pit the Social Democrats (SPD) and Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) -- joined in the country's governing coalition -- against each other.

After days of speculation, German President Horst Köhler announced on Thursday that he would seek a second five-year term in elections scheduled for next spring. Meanwhile, the SPD plans to say on Monday whether it will put up Gesine Schwan, president of Viadrina University in Frankfurt an der Oder, a city that shares its border with Poland, to run against him.

"Germany ... has made progress in recent years," Köhler, who was managing director of the International Monetary Fund prior to becoming president, said in announcing his decision. "We should continue on the path of renewal. I would like to accompany and promote the process of preservation and change."

The position of president is Germany's highest public office and the president often represents the country overseas. Forays into politics are usually limited to attempts at raising the level of political debate should the mudslinging become too rampant or reminding the country of its moral direction and values. Significantly, though, the president also calls new elections, a task which put Köhler in the spotlight in 2005 when Schröder opted for snap general elections a year ahead of time.

In keeping with the non-political character of the office, Köhler said he would not mount a campaign. The German president is elected by a body known as the Federal Assembly, made up of parliamentarians in Berlin and representatives of state parliaments.

Should the SPD opt to nominate Schwan, it would set up a rematch of the 2004 race for the presidency. Then, Köhler managed to win out with the support of the CDU and the pro-business Free Democrats. This time around, however, the left side of the political spectrum in Germany -- made up of the SPD, the Left Party and the Greens -- might have a majority in the Federal Assembly. The final makeup of the body won't be clear until after September state elections in Bavaria.

Still, the political maneuvering in the eventuality of a Schwan candidacy has already begun in earnest. Günther Beckstein, governor of Bavaria for the CDU sister party Christian Social Union, said that extremist parties cannot be allowed to tip the scale in such a presidential election -- a reference to the post-communist Left Party which many assume would support Schwan.

CSU party leader Erwin Huber echoed Beckstein in comments to SPIEGEL ONLINE saying, "the occupant of the country's highest office cannot be determined with the votes from enemies of the constitution such as those from the Left Party."

Schwan, however, has never been shy about her antipathy for the far left. In the 1980s, when her SPD was busy fostering closer relations with Communist parties behind the Iron Curtain and avoiding dialogue with dissidents, Schwan sought out those Eastern Europeans who would dare criticize their governments. The life-time academic is also fluent in Polish and is the government's delegate for German-Polish relations.

The Social Democrats are weighing whether to put up Gesine Schwan to run against Köhler.
DDP

The Social Democrats are weighing whether to put up Gesine Schwan to run against Köhler.

Indeed, there is little doubt that Schwan would be a popular candidate for the post among Germans. In 2004, she found widespread support among the German populace. The Social Democrats may be hoping that steering public attention toward the well-spoken and intellectually sure-footed Schwan will divert attention away from the political clumsiness of party leader Kurt Beck -- bumbling which has resulted in plunging popular support for the SPD.

Still, the strategy would not be without risks for the party. General elections are set to take place just a few months after the presidential election. Should Schwan lose out to Köhler once again, the failure could rub off on the Social Democrats in the voting booth. And should she win with the support of the Left Party, it could give the impression that the SPD is willing to cooperate with the far left. It was only just last month that SPD leader Beck was blasted for saying that he would consider working together with the Left Party -- a misstep that is playing a not insignificant role in the party's current woeful standing in political polls, where it is now hovering at around 23 percent.

The party said it was waiting for Köhler to make his decision before settling on a strategy. Now that he has, the ball is in the SPD's court.

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