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Germany

Germany's Steinmeier: pragmatic, assertive, respected

A few years ago he wanted to be chancellor and lost to Angela Merkel. Now Frank-Walter Steinmeier may be Germany's next president. He has 20 years of political experience as a member of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD).

Germany's major parties agree: Frank-Walter Steinmeier should be the next federal president of Germany. He has been an important player in national politics for years, currently serving as foreign minister for the grand governing coalition between the SPD and Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). It is the most recent job for the 60-year-old, who can boast nearly 20 years of political experience, having served as chancellery minister, SPD chief, and foreign minister under a previous Merkel-led coalition government as well. For many Germans, he is the face of Germany to the world. When, as is very likely, he takes over from Joachim Gauck (seen on the left in the above picture) as federal president early next year, it will be as an already well-known figure.

Germany's most respected politician

Steinmeier possesses traits befitting the position. He is well-respected across party lines and around the world, an experienced diplomat and has been tested by repeated crises. Polling has for years shown him to be one of Germany's most respected politicians. A recent survey conducted by the ARD public broadcaster showed him with an approval rating of 72 percent, likely a critical point in his favor during the weeks' long hemming and hawing among the parties as they negotiated a candidate.

Analysts are not surprised that Steinmeier, the son of a carpenter from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is interested in the country's highest position in public service. The nearly quarter of a million miles he flies every year as foreign minister already gives him a presidential air. He emerged as a particularly prominent figure during the Ukraine crisis, engaging in intense shuttle diplomacy between Kyiv and Moscow that helped deescalate the conflict. His measured words then stand in contrast to his recent headline-worthy remarks on US President-elect Donald Trump, whom he called a "preacher of hate."

Steinmeier standing in front of plane (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

Steinmeier is already a high-profile figure in German and international politics

The rise of Steinmeier

His career on the national stage began at the side of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD), with Steinmeier heading Schröder's state chancellery while the latter was still premier of Lower Saxony. When the SPD won power at national general elections in 1998 with Schröder at the helm, Steinmeier moved to the center of power in Berlin, first as state secretary and, later, as head of the chancellery. He took over the foreign ministry for the first time in the grand coalition under Chancellor Merkel in 2005. From 2007, he also served as vice chancellor to Merkel in addition to his job as Germany's top diplomat - and ran unsuccessfully as SPD candidate for chancellor in the 2009 election. The SPD's loss at that election was put down by many people to his lack of a popular touch. Steinmeier is still viewed as somewhat aloof, which may have hurt him with voters back then, but makes him a good player in the complicated games of international diplomacy, where clear-sighted tenacity is a paramount virtue.

He returned to the office of foreign minister in 2013 in a new Merkel-led grand coalition, this time made up of CDU and SPD.

Born on January 5, 1956, in Detmold, Steinmeier is married to Elke Büdenbender, an administrative judge. They have a grown-up daughter. In 2010, he put his political career on hold to donate a kidney to his seriously ill wife, which won him great respect among German voters.

Steinmeier in Vietnam (picture alliance/dpa/G. Fischer)

Steinmeier is an able diplomat and skilled bridge builder: good traits for a president

Merkel: a 'prudent decision'

Even Steinmeier's opponents in the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, now have good things to say about him as a possible president. Ilse Aigner, Bavaria's deputy premier, agrees he is a "good candidate." MEP Manfred Weber, also from the CSU, looks forward to the continuity Steinmeier will bring to the presidency. "Germany needs strong leadership, especially in our current situation," he said.

The longtime SPD politician is viewed, it would seem, as an anchor of stability in a time of disorder and uncertainty. It is a view shared by Chancellor Merkel, who called Steinmeier's candidacy for president a "prudent decision." And most Germans are likely to agree with her.

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