German President, and former head of the International Monetary Fund, Horst Köhler received a standing ovation on Tuesday for his unusually outspoken views on the cause and cure for the nation's ailments.
Köhler dispensed with formalities
First and foremost, the function of the German president is to represent the nation and its citizens, which means that Horst Köhler, like his predecessors, is bound to remain neutral and to refrain from intervening in inter-party domestic politics. Thus, when he does voice an opinion on central issues of German politics, people sit up and take notice. In a clear and convincing analysis of Germany's economic and social reality, he says Germans are no longer true to themselves and have destroyed the order which once promoted excellence, the result being five million people out of work and a mountain of debt.
The president's prescriptive cures are not new, but what is, is that Köhler is making them his own. Stepping out from behind his curtain of neutral representation, he has taken a risk and entered the melee of Germany's political battlefield. Köhler is calling for a reduction in non-wage labor costs and has even mooted the idea that social security costs should no longer be contingent upon employment conditions. In making such a statement, he plants a question mark above one of the most important pillars of the German social welfare state.
A standing ovation for the president
His call for more flexibility in wage contracts is in harmony with the demands of the opposition Christian Democrats. The CDU is also keen to give employers and works councils the opportunity to create what they call operational labor associations, which would mean tailoring working hours and wages to meet individual requirements of the company in question and as such relax the blanket wage agreements. The same thing goes for the German president's call for far-reaching tax reforms. In this case also, he has reiterated the demands of the opposition, which have, however, now received some backing from the ruling coalition.
Even if it were not the president's initial intention to hold his speech a few days ahead of the meeting between German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and leaders of the Christian Democratic opposition, the public reaction will be of some consequence. With his brave intervention, Horst Köhler has made it clear that he -- and important segments of the German public -- expect the politically responsible to jump over their shadows and declare a willingness to implement fundamental steps towards reform.
That goes for the overhaul of the social security system, tax reforms, dispensing with popular subventions and concentrating on education and research. But the actual influence of the president's words on the domestic political agenda will not become clear until the chancellor meets with the opposition on Thursday.