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Opinion

Opinion: The German presidential election - a missed opportunity

What makes an election an election is that the result is not known beforehand. Why isn't this also the case when democratically elected representatives choose the German president?

Steinmeier (right) with Germany's outgoing President Joachim Gauck

Steinmeier (right) with Germany's outgoing President Joachim Gauck

There is no question that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, currently foreign minister, will make a good president. That is, if he is elected - which seems highly likely. He will cut an elegant figure, represent the country with style and, on the domestic front, he will be level-headed and occasionally admonish the country to stick together. 

His speeches won't have the esprit of his predecessor, Joachim Gauck. He won't have Johannes Rau's wit and rhetorical wisdom. But his speeches will be serious and genuine. The president's power is in the spoken and written word, and Steinmeier, who is not known for his rhetorical talent, will try to calmly and rationally focus on the country's problems. We won't be able to expect from him the kind of brilliant, even historical speeches such as those from Richard von Weizsäcker, Theodor Heuss or also from Roman Herzog, but he will commit the German people to facing the realities of modern life. Steinmeier represents a measured middle-road and political good-sense, but this shouldn't be underestimated in these turbulent times - between Putin, Trump, Erdogan and the EU crisis.

An outmanoeuvred chancellor

Steinmeier was not selected by Chancellor Merkel. No - she let him be selected by someone else. He was chosen by her coalition partner, SPD head, Sigmar Gabriel, who, together with Horst Seehofer, chairman of the sister party, the CSU, outmanoeuvred the chancellor. Sensibly keeping the majority views of the general assembly in sight, Merkel wanted a candidate who would be approved by consensus.

One possibility, Norbert Lammert, president of the German parliament, declared himself early on to be uninterested in the job. And Merkel let things drift, until Gabriel suddenly announced that Frank-Walter Steinmeier was the candidate for the Social Democrats. A week later Merkel was defeated - and accepted Steinmeier as the candidate representing rationality and the political centre.

DW's editor-in-chief Alexander Kudascheff

DW's editor-in-chief Alexander Kudascheff

Merkel, who is supposedly the most powerful woman in the world (which is not incorrect), has been defeated on the domestic political stage. Firstly through the refugee crisis, which has eroded her authority, and now by the remarkable way in which the candidate for German president has been chosen. Can it really be possible that there was no one from the CDU, Germany's largest political party, who was suitable for the position? This is inconceivable. Was it not possible to find someone who was prepared to stand for candidacy - even if there was a chance of losing, which is an obvious feature of democracy?  It is unbelievable. Or is it? Or is it now the case that the strongest candidates only come forward when they are sure of winning?

But especially in light of Trump's recent election, especially with the elite-bashing going on everywhere, with victories by authoritarian populists such as Erdogan, with the Brexit referendum, it would have sent the right signal to have two top-level candidates stand against each other. It is not the powerful who decide who will be president but rather the federal and state members of parliament. And there is no question that Steinmeier would certainly have had good chances. But then so would a candidate from the CDU.

The CDU is selling itself short

Merkel has, tactically speaking, gone off-track. She didn't see what was under her nose, which was to nominate someone herself, such as Gabriel did. She sold herself short, more than was necessary. And above all, she took away everyone's chance of there being a democratic duel between two candidates. There would have been an uncertain outcome: Steinmeier may have become president anyway. And most likely a good and well-respected president of this country. But someone else may also have won. Perhaps even a woman. Because after 67 years, a female president in Bellevue Palace may have been a good solution in these difficult times. Furthermore, for those in power who think they can do what they like, a real election battle may just have taken the wind out of their sails. The 2017 election for German president - a missed opportunity.

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