For the first time ever, a Green politician is to preside over the upper chamber of the German parliament. The minister president of Baden-Württemberg is a keen advocate of federalism.
Winfried Kretschmann is making history. He's been elected president of the Bundesrat, a position he will hold for one year - the first Green politican to do so. The Bundesrat is the chamber of representatives for Germany's individual states. This is where the states have their say in the passage of legislation.
Kretschmann, the popular minister president of the state of Baden-Württemberg, was unanimously elected to the office of president, which falls to a different federal state each year in a predetermined succession.
But although himself a state premier, he has already taken up the cause of promoting German federalism. The often-criticized division of powers between the federal government and the 16 states is "an issue that is very close to my heart," Kretschmann said in his inaugural address.
Critic of "regionalism"
The 64-year-old politician became the first Green Party leader of a German state when he was elected minister president of Baden-Württemberg in May 2011. "Our federal system is a good political system," Kretschmann insisted in his address. However, he noted that Germans have an ambivalent relationship with federalism. On the one hand they identify strongly with their native states - Bavaria, Hesse, Saxony and so on - but on the other, says Kretschmann, they find it suspicious when states are given too much power to decide things for themselves.
Education policy is one prime example. 80 percent of Germans would prefer the same schoolbooks to be used across the country. They believe that centralized structures are an advantage, Kretschmann points out. However, the politician concludes that "federalism does not have many friends today."
He has pledged to juggle both sides of the issue, saying he will carefully balance the diverse interests of the various states, as well as create a closer relationship between the nation and its citizens.
Incomprehensible and dull?
The leader of Baden-Württemberg believes that the image problem surrounding federalism originates with the Bundesrat itself. Even before taking office, Kretschmann had lamented the "phlegmatic tone" of the debates. In his inaugural speech he commented that outside observers would find the organizational structures barely comprehensible, and complained of a lack of transparency, citing the voting procedure as one example.
Kretschmann would like there to be more openness. He also wants the states chamber to take the initiative more often. Only 11 percent of all legislative bills originate with the Bundesrat, and the Green politician believes this figure should be higher.
The Bundesrat has plenty to occupy it in the coming months with the shift to renewable energy, the euro crisis, and regulation of the financial markets expected to be hot agenda items. Kretschmann, a pragmatic man whose political style is a realistic one that focuses on achieving consensus, will lead the sessions.
According to the Constitution, he has a further duty. Should the German president should resign, or not be able to carry out his office, the President of the Bundesrat temporarily becomes the German head of state. And as the resignations of two German presidents in recent years have shown, this is not just a theoretical option.