Former German president Koehler leaves mostly positive legacy | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 31.05.2010
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Former German president Koehler leaves mostly positive legacy

In a surprise announcement, German president Horst Koehler has resigned from his post. Although his position was largely ceremonial, Koehler was one of Germany's more popular politicians.

Horst Koehler

Koehler was first elected in 2004

Koehler was elected to power as the ninth German president on May 23, 2004, at the suggestion of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Free Democrats (FDP). Five years later, he was re-elected for a second term.

Since the position is largely ceremonial, the record of a German president is not necessarily measured by successful reforms, passing new laws or overcoming government crises. Rather, much of it depends on the reputation left behind with the people. In this regard, Horst Koehler was quite successful, as two-thirds of German citizens believed he should stay in office.

Horst Koehler

The former president was well liked among the German people

The official head of state was simultaneously the most popular politician in the country. "He doesn't portray anyone other than his real self - an honest man," wrote Heribert Prantl in the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. When Koehler announced his bid for re-election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke highly of him.

"I believe in the last few years, he has won over the hearts of the people in Germany," said Merkel. "He has an open way of approaching people, and an ability to speak about hard truths."

Ridiculed by politicos, respected by the people

At times, Koehler would be ridiculed in some of Berlin's elite political circles as being only a bank director, referring to his previous positions as head of the Association of German Savings Banks, as well as head of the International Monetary Fund. However, such criticism only made Koehler more popular among citizens.

Koehler was not known as a big visionary or one to make rousing speeches, as he was not a good orator. Instead, he compensated for this through his diligence, his visible struggles to find the answers to problems, and his honest curiosity, which many veteran politicians would only pretend to have.

Social equalities

Within Germany, Koehler pushed for better education among youths, including immigrants. His global vision focused on the challenges of globalization and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The former president also took a particular interest in Africa, which he often visited.

"In my view, the humanity of our world is defined by the fate of Africa," said Koehler. "We now know that it would have been less risky to build a train line across Africa than to invest in a respected New York investment bank."

An uncomfortable President

Koehler made good his promise to be an 'uncomfortable' President. He twice refused to pass laws drawn up by the former Grand Coalition of the CDU and SPD and voiced concern about several others, but left the final decision to the Constitutional Court.

However, Koehler's most important official act was the dissolution of the German parliament, or Bundestag, in July 2005 at the request of former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. During a hectic time in German politics, Koehler gave the green light for new elections, something which the majority of Germans also supported.

With his constant calls for reform, Koehler emancipated himself from Chancellor Merkel and the CDU, who backed his original candidacy. Sometimes, his background as an economist came through. For example, he criticized the grand coalition for extending unemployment benefits.

He also repeatedly praised Gerhard Schroeder for his controversial 2010 reform agenda and Hartz IV social reforms, something which brought him criticism from Germany's Left Party.

Horst Koehler

Koehler took a particular interest in development aid to Africa

"He has made an effort to be a good president, there's no doubt about it," said former Left Party leader Oskar Lafontaine. "But what we have criticized, is his neo-liberal bias. He was always a supporter of Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV, failed labor market policies which we are known to be against."

Yet the neo-liberal tag faded somewhat in recent years. In the light of the global financial crisis, he made an appeal last March for a stronger, bigger State to bring the markets under control. Furthermore, he expressed doubt that economic growth was the solution to all problems and sympathized with the idea of a New Green Deal.

Author: Bernd Graessler (mk)
Editor: Rob Turner

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