The Social Democrats nominated politics professor Gesine Schwan on Monday to stand against conservative President Horst Köhler in an election by the country's parliament scheduled for May 2009.
The move to challenge an incumbent president who is standing for a second term is unprecedented in German politics and harbors risks for Angela Merkel's coalition of conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
German presidents perform largely ceremonial and apolitical duties but they do have some powers, which include signing legislation and formally disolving parliament. Presidents are voted indirectly by members of both houses of the German parliament.
Schwan, 65 -- a member of the SPD and president of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an der Oder, a German city that shares its border with Poland -- stood for the presidency in 2004 as the SPD candidate, but lost to Köhler, who was backed by Merkel.
Her candidacy has opened up a fresh front between the two governing parties which have been too busy quarrelling over a range of issues this year to tackle concrete policies.
If Schwan loses, and she may well given Köhler's current slight majority, the SPD could be damaged ahead of the European parliamentary election and German federal election in 2009, further weakening the party which is already lagging far behind the CDU in opinion polls. If she wins, it would be seen as a symbolic blow to Merkel.
"I see a realistic chance of being elected and I want to appeal for votes from all parties, including the Left Party," Schwan, flanked by SPD chairman Kurt Beck, told a news conference on Monday.
Gesine Schwan has something for everyone -- Christian values for conservatives, pride in Social Democracy for the Social Democrats and criticism of the vagaries of capitalism for leftists.
Charting Unknown Territory
This is a historic point in German politics. For the first time in the history of the German Federal Republic, a president is going to have to wage an election campaign, and its outcome is open. Horst Köhler has no precedent to draw on. He has to invent the role of the campaigning president for Germany.
Schwan's candidacy also seals the division of the grand coalition into two camps. The CDU, its Bavarian Christian Social Union sister party and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) will fight for Köhler. The SPD, Left Party and Greens will probably fight for his challenger. That means the SPD will for the first time fight side-by-side with Oskar Lafontaine's Left Party in a national contest against the CDU and Chancellor Merkel. Maybe it's the harbinger of a future German government made up of a SPD-Left Party coalition. It means that more in-fighting in the current coalition is pre-programmed, leading to a greater standstill.
The motto now is all hands on deck to start mud-slinging. Hesse's CDU governor Roland Koch declared: "Yet again, large parts of the SPD are looking leftwards like they did in Hesse, and they don't realize this means the secret SPD leader is called Lafontaine, and that the SPD's leadership is dancing to his tune."
Schwan's candidacy also amounts to a failure of the grand coalition's inner circle of leadership. The heads of the CDU and SPD really wanted a second term for Köhler. But they weren't decisive enough and failed to prevent SPD members of parliament from outflanking them.
A Leadership Vaccuum
Politically, Germany seems rudderless these days. The government and the ruling parties' leaders are unable to get their projects through or no longer have any policies to agree on.
Of course it's not a bad thing for a democracy if there's an opposing candidate in an election. It means German politics is getting a little more exciting, but that has only happened because the SPD leadership was caught napping.
It all started with SPD leader Kurt Beck hesitating, as he so often does. He spent too long dithering about whether he wanted Köhler to be president or not. In the end he decided not to make a decision. The president himself should first say whether he wanted a second term, said Köhler. Behind closed doors he said he wouldn't rule out re-electing Horst Köhler with SPD votes. Last summer he declared, "I have nothing to criticize about Horst Köhler."
SPD parliamentary group leader Peter Struck shared that view. Why, said Beck and Struck, should the SPD withhold its support from such a popular president? Wouldn't that do the party more harm than good? They weren't totally opposed to the SPD fielding its own candidate. But they simply had doubts whether a challenger was warranted.
Their lack of decision prompted others in the SPD to take matters into their own hands. Sebastian Edathy, an SPD member of parliament, regards Köhler as a pale bureaucrat who lacks political vision. "Being nice alone isn't enough to qualify you for the country's highest office," said Edathy. He found other members of parliament who shared his doubts about Köhler. They decided to pave the way for their own candidate, and they chose Schwan.
It was Easter and Schwan was in Mexico when she got a call from Edathy. He asked her whether she could imagine running again. Schwan said she would indeed, if she were called on. So Edathy started lobbying support for Schwan and found further allies on the SPD's left wing such as Niels Annen and Andrea Nahles who regard Köhler as a neoliberal who obscures his true beliefs with cloudy rhetoric.
Beck, Struck and others in the SPD's leadership didn't realize what was brewing, or they underestimated it. The Schwan fans went public two weeks ago. "Horst Köhler wasn't the SPD's candidate at the last election. I see no pressing reason why he should be our candidate in 2009," Edathy told SPIEGEL. Women in the party also started declaring their support for Schwan. The SPD's leadership met on May 17 and quarrelled about whether Schwan should enter the race. Deputy leader Peer Steinbrück, Germany's finance minister, warned about the dangers of backing Schwan, saying: "How will we be able to campaign for the European and general elections if Gesine Schwan loses?" Struck added that the risk of a defeat for Schwan was extremely high as it was uncertain how many votes she would get.
SPD Taking Risks With Nomination
On Monday, the leadership finally decided to nominate Schwan as the SPD's candidate. Her supporters say a victory would give the SPD a massive boost ahead of next year's elections and would be a victory over the conservatives and the FDP. Even her nomination could give the SPD much-needed impetus, they say.
But there are risks too. How will voters react if the SPD votes a popular president out of office? What happens if Schwan is defeated? Could that hurt the SPD's chances in the general election? What will voters think if the SPD join forces with the Left Party to elect Schwan?
Ever since Beck's U-turn earlier this year when he suddenly dropped his opposition to the SPD making regional alliances with the Left Party in western Germany he and the SPD have been under suspicion of planning to form a national government with the help of the Left Party after the 2009 election. If Schwan wins the election, the SPD will find it even harder to persuade voters that it has no intention of forming a coalition with a political bloc that includes the successor party to East Germany's communists.
Schwan on Monday criticized the Left Party, saying it was failing to provide answers to the issues of globalization, and that she believed the SPD would be "tripping itself up" if it entered a coalition with the party in its current form.
The to-ing and fro-ing over her nomination has reaffirmed questions about Beck's leadership. But it hasn't helped his main rival in the SPD, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, either. Beck's rapid loss of power and standing in the party should boost Steinmeier's chances of getting nominated instead of Beck as the SPD's candidate for the chancellorship in 2009. But Steinmeier's prospects also seem to be waning. Were Schwan to get elected with the help of Left Party votes, Steinmeier's solemn pledge not to enter any national alliance with the Left Party would ring hollow.
Gesine Schwan's election campaign has now started. When former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder picked her to stand against Köhler in 2004, she was delighted. She isn't known for modesty. There are few things she enjoyed as much as spending 10 weeks in the limelight campaigning, and she appears to be looking forward to her second candidacy.
Her eyes gleamed with genuine pleasure on Monday at the prospect of spending a whole year debating politics in public. "I want to help restore public faith in the political process by explaining it to people," she said.
The persistence with which she has put herself forward as the ideal candidate for the presidency suggests she has a well-developed ego. Her self-confidence has raised eyebrows among some in the SPD, but it has also won her a lot of respect.
She smiles a lot, seeks physical contact at public meetings, embracing people or touching their arms. "Her human proximity to people big and small, old and young, rich or poor is remarkable," said Frankfurt an der Oder Mayor Martin Patzelt, a conservative.
Köhler Faces Tough Campaign Battle
Horst Köhler also likes to reach out to people, but he's more reticent. He has become popular among ordinary Germans with his vocal criticism of politicians, but he now needs those politicians because the president isn't elected directly but by the Federal Assembly -- the upper and lower houses of parliament.
Last Thursday, when Köhler declared that he would be seeking a second term, he didn't say that he would be campaigning for re-election. But if Schwan bangs the drum for herself -- which she undoubtedly will do -- Köhler can't just sit in his palace and not respond. His staff doesn't know how to react now. Should they start lobbying politicians? Köhler, former head of the International Monetary Fund, never was a politician and he has no experience of waging a campaign. His long hesitation in declaring his candidacy proves his lack of political judgment. Had he declared it a few weeks earlier the SPD would probably not have nominated a challenger. He also lacks the people who could help him campaign. He doesn't have many close confidants among his aides, and none of those has ever got their hands dirty campaigning.
It is completely unclear what the makeup of the Federal Assembly -- the combined houses of parliament -- will be on May 23 when it convenes to choose Germany's next president. At present Köhler has the required absolute majority, albeit just a slight one of one or two votes. But by the time of the election the Federal Assembly will have changed, because Bavaria will hold a regional election this September in which the CSU is likely to see its majority shrink from the overwhelming result of 60.7 percent it scored last time. That would reduce the number of conservative delegates in Köhler's camp and make it harder for him to secure a majority.
Köhler has the advantage that the conservatives and the FDP have said they will vote for him. However, Merkel and her allies were so sure that there would be no challenger that they failed to come up with a contingency plan in case one came forward. One deal to avoid a challenge could have been offering the SPD the choice of the next German EU commissioner in return for letting Köhler stand unchallenged for a second term.
Tension Between Merkel and Köhler
Now Merkel has to fight for a president from whom she has become increasingly alienated. She thought it was unfair and ungrateful of Köhler, whom she helped get into office, to accuse her government of lacking the courage to pursue more reforms.
Despite this tension, Merkel has to hope that Köhler will win a second term. A chancellor incapable of pushing through her candidate for the presidency is bound to be weakened. When Merkel arranged Köhlers majority four years ago it was seen as an important step towards her chancellorship. Köhler's failure to secure a second term could also herald her own political demise.
She's already reached the end of the road, at least in terms of her ability to implement any more policies. The fight for the presidency has brought her fragile coalition to a near-complete standstill. The mood among her party has turned completely against the SPD over the last week. There aren't many conservative members of parliament left who have anything good to say about the grand coalition. They regard the SPD's behavior as tantamount to throwing down the gauntlet.
Some are saying it's time to start thinking about breaking up of the coalition. "The coalition has to be based on a minimum of trust," said Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a member of the CSU. "We mustn't conduct an appeasement policy that ends up calling our own dignity into question."
Fellow CSU member Hans-Peter Uhl no longer regards the SPD as a serious ally. "It's unusable in its current state," he said. Stefan Müller, a young Bavarian MP, said: "The longer this coalition continues, the more the realization grows that it should end sooner rather than later."
But Merkel wants to carry on. She's convinced that voters will punish whoever decides to end the coalition without a good reason.
But what is the grand coalition good for? What will it do with its remaining 18 months? The government only has two grand projects, a difficult budget and an even more difficult healthcare reform program. The government lacks the strength to tackle any more than that. The leaders of the grand coalition weren't even able to arrange Köhler a second term.
They now face 18 months of non-stop election campaigning. Calling an early election, as happened in 2005, isn't an option. In 2005, Köhler dissolved parliament at then-Chancellor Schröder's request, enabling an election to be held one year ahead of schedule.
The move was constitutionally controversial and Köhler could no longer afford to take such a decision again, said one SPD strategist. After all, Köhler is no longer just Germany's most senior notary, he's also an election campaigner in his own right.
Reporting by Stefan Berg, Ralf Beste, Christoph Gunkel, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Roland Nelles, Ralf Neukirch, Rene Pfister, Janine Wergin