Party alliances put to test in battle for German presidency | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.05.2009
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Party alliances put to test in battle for German presidency

Germany's presidential elections are normally a sedate contest for a ceremonial post. But four months ahead of a general election, the vote on Saturday is testing allegiances between old and potential new allies.

Bellevue Palace

Germany's president gets to live at Bellevue Palace in Berlin

The race for the German presidency is traditionally devoid of costly campaigning and mud-slinging rhetoric. In the past the country's highest political office almost automatically went to the strongest political party's candidate.

But as September's general election looms large on the horizon, Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) has decided to put up a fight and has fielded Gesine Schwan as its candidate. The SPD is seeking to unseat incumbent President Horst Koehler with the help of the Left Party.

In an apparent attempt to rally the hard left behind her bid, Gesine Schwan has blamed Germany's business elite for the current economic crisis, and warned of "an explosive social atmosphere" that could be emerging among the population.

"We cannot ignore people's anger and outrage about the injustices brought about by the crisis," she told German public broadcaster ZDF recently. "We have to take them seriously when they feel that they have to pay the price for the failures of those who are now shirking their responsibility."

Presidential backlash

Horst Koehler

Horst Koehler hopes to be re-elected for one last term

Horst Koehler has criticized those remarks, accusing his Social Democratic challenger indirectly of scaremongering.

"What we shouldn't be doing is creating panic in Germany," he told RBB public radio. "We shouldn't give the impression that we can neither cope with the economic nor the social repercussions of the crisis. Of course we can cope," he added.

Koehler is seeking a second term in office and has a narrow majority in the 1,224-seat Federal Assembly which will elect the next president on Saturday. He's backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU as well as the conservatives' traditional allies the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). The conservatives hope to form Germany's next government coalition with the FDP.

Additional support is expected to come from the conservative Free Voters' alliance from Bavaria, which has 10 delegates in the Federal Assembly.

Shaky left-wing alliance

Gesine Schwan

Schwan rallies support at a Green Party convention

The Social Democrats' contender, Gesine Schwan, has had to forge a more diverse following, which means wooing the Green Party and the Left Party.

The conservatives have accused the SPD of flirting with the Left Party in an attempt to forge a political marriage aimed at taking over the government after September's general election.

But Gesine Schwan - a former president of the German-Polish Viadrina University in Frankfurt/Oder - is also viewed with skepticism by the hard left. She is known for her anti-communist stance and has repeatedly called Left Party chairman Oskar Lafontaine a demagogue.

As a result the Left Party has nominated its own candidate - Peter Sodann - a popular theater and television actor. However, he stands no chance of being elected president.

Third-round cliffhanger

Nevertheless, challenger Gesine Schwan is banking on the votes of the Left Party as well as a third round of voting in which she believes that the hard left will abandon its own candidate.

She also hopes to entice CDU or FDP delegates to her side to win the 613-vote simple majority required in the third round to become German president.

Last time around, Schwan did win over delegates from the conservative and liberal camps, but she still lost to Koehler.

The Federal Assembly is, indeed, an unpredictable body. It is made up of 612 members of parliament in addition to a further 612 delegates who come from all walks of life and are chosen by the country's 16 state governments.

The vote will be held by secret ballot, which makes it a test of political alliances in which a major upset is not entirely unlikely.

Editor: Nancy Isenson

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