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Germany

German Presidential Contender Causes Coalition Strain

Gesine Schwan is the Social Democrats' choice to fill the ceremonial president's office. The decision is sure to cause friction within Germany's coalition government.

Gesine Schwan

Schwan is the left's choice

Schwan, a 65-year-old university professor, was announced on Monday, May 26, as the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) choice for the high-profile office of German president. Schwan nearly won the post five years ago, but lost out to Horst Koehler, a former head of the International Monetary Fund.

Koehler has the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who wants to see him serve a second five-year term. Members of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), were upset to hear that the SPD would put forth its own candidate. The parties form a left-right coalition together.

Chancellor Merkel expressed her anger about the decision of her coalition partners to nominate their own candidate.

"We have a president who is respected around the world," Merkel said. "So it is regrettable that the Social Democrats have put up their own candidate in this step that can only be explained by the internal state of the party.”

Schwan's candidacy runs counter to a longstanding tradition observed by the two main political blocs not to put up a challenger to a president seeking a second term.

"I believe that this candidacy will fail and that Horst Koehler will remain president, as is the wish of the majority of our citizens," she added.

Coalition will stay together

SPD and CDU flags

They do not always see eye to eye

SPD head Hubertus Heil said that he does not worry that the move will rupture the coalition ahead of federal elections, which are scheduled to take place in 2009. The CSU also faces state elections in Bavaria later this year.

"A little competition isn't going to cause any harm to a functioning democracy," Heil said. "The CSU is nervous ahead of the state elections in September. I urge them just to relax."

SPD leader Kurt Beck said that his party would not "campaign against the incumbent."

"In a democracy, we view a rival candidacy as a good opportunity for a broad discussion of the issues," Beck said Monday.

Merkel's spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm also rejected any suggestion of the coalition breaking apart at a news conference.

"The chancellor has made it clear that the SPD decision puts a strain on the coalition but that she, as well as the chairmen of the SPD and CSU, remains interested in carrying on the work on policies in the best interests of Germany," Wilhelm said.

Secret vote

Horst Köhler in a group of people

Koehler wants another five years

Schwan narrowly lost to Koehler in 2004 when the CDU and Free Democrats (FDP) had a majority in the federal assembly, which is made up of members of parliament and delegates from each of Germany's 16 federal states.

The vote for president is done by secret ballot, meaning any federal assembly member can vote for any candidate. The assembly meets every five years to elect a president.

The assembly vote for president will take place in May of 2009. Political analysts say that center-left parties could have enough votes to elect Schwan. While the SPD has refused to enter into a coalition with the Left party in forming a government, it would presumably rely on the Left and the Greens to elect Schwan.

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