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Germany

A Mrs. President for Germany?

Germany’s President Johannes Rau only announced on Thursday that he will not seek a second term, but the race to replace him is already heating up. Chancellor Schröder has said he supports having a woman president.

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Germany's largely ceremonial President Johannes Rau has said he will step down for personal reasons.

Confirming what many had long suspected, German President Johannes Rau last week said he would not stand for a second term as the country’s ceremonial head of state. Rau, who is 72 years old, said he had personal reasons for stepping down.

“I believe I now have a right to live a little freer than I have up to this point,” said Rau, who before become president was the long-serving premier of Germany’s largest state North Rhine-Westphalia.

But as a Social Democrat Rau would have likely stood little chance of winning a second five-year term next May anyway, since the joint parliamentary assembly that elects Germany’s president is currently controlled by the opposition conservatives and liberals.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens allies may hold sway in the lower house the Bundestag, but the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) together with the smaller Free Democrats party have a stronger majority in Germany’s upper house the Bundestag, which represents the 16 federal states. That has put the conservatives in the driving seat in nominating Rau’s successor, however, odd as it may seem, that could actually end up working to Schröder’s advantage.

A dilemma for the conservatives

For the chancellor can now remain above the coming political fray as the conservatives fight amongst themselves about whom to put in Germany’s highest office. The decision will be much harder than it sounds, since the choice of the conservatives’ candidate could set off a internal power struggle within the Christian Democrats and could determine just who will face Schröder in the next general election in 2006.

Angela Merkel in den USA

Angela Merkel

The key question is whether Germany’s next president will be woman or not. Although Schröder and several other leading Social Democrats and Greens have called for Rau’s successor to be female, the head of the Christian Democrats Angela Merkel has been more hesitant, fearing her party would be less likely to support her bid to unseat Schröder as chancellor if there were a woman president.

Many Germans seem to think the time is right for a woman to take on the ceremonial duties of the presidency, but Merkel probably believes the country isn’t ready to have women in both offices. Therefore having a woman take up the country’s top office in May would likely ruin her chances of becoming the conservatives’ chancellor candidate in three years’ time.

Hoping to defuse the gender debate somewhat, CDU Secretary General Laurenz Meyer said on Friday the party would not set specific criteria for their presidential candidate: “It’s not about whether it’s a man or woman or someone from the south, east or west, but rather it’s about finding the most appropriate candidate for this highest state office in Germany.”

And the candidates are...

Among the politicians being mooted for the top job are the former chief justice of the Constitutional Court Jutta Limbach, ex-Thuringia premier Bernhard Vogel and CDU foreign policy expert Wolfgang Schäuble. Although Limbach is well respected and a woman, the fact she is a Social Democrat will work against her. Vogel, is a CDU member, but is considered by many as too old for the job. Observers say Schäuble, who briefly headed the CDU, lacks the charisma and human warm usually required of the presidency.

Although the liberal Free Democrats are relishing their role as kingmaker, no FDP politicians are given realistic chances at becoming president. Allied with the CDU in the Bundesrat, they are likely to follow the conservatives in the end, but FDP deputy leader Rainer Brüderle on Saturday left open the possibility the liberals could also support an SPD candidate.

“It isn’t snubbing (the CDU) if an opinion is formed during an independent decision-making process,” he told German NDR television.

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