The decision by Germany’s Social Democrats to field an opposition candidate for the next presidential election is a risky move, analysts say. But it could have a big payoff, as well.
Schwan lost the 2004 vote by a narrower-than-expected margin
The SPD, the junior partner in Germany’s ruling coalition government, said on Monday, May 26 that it will once again put up Gesine Schwan as candidate for German presidential election a year from now, in May, 2009.
Schwan, a 65 year old academic and expert in German-Polish relations, was the SPD candidate in the last presidential vote in 2004, where she narrowly lost to current President Horst Koehler.
Koehler recently said he would run again
The announcement unleashed a whirlwind of criticism and rhetoric from German politicians, some of whom went so far as to warn it could break up the ruling coalition between the SPD and the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Socialist Union parties that has governed Germany since 2005. The CDU/CSU supports incumbent Koehler.
The German presidency is a largely ceremonial job that carries a five-year term. Presidents are elected in secret ballot by a body called the Federal Assembly, which is made up of parliamentarians and delegates chosen by state legislatures.
In 2004, Koehler was able to best Schwan because he had the support of the then-conservative Federal Assembly. But a recent shift to the left in German politics, especially the growth of the controversial far-left Left Party, means a left-wing party has a good chance of fielding a winning candidate in 2009.
Party in search of profile
Thomas Meyer, a political science professor at the Dortmund University of Technology who has worked with the SPD-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation, says the SPD move can essentially be seen as a bid for a stronger party profile -- something that has been lacking on the left recently.
"The SPD is looking for a symbolic piece of politics to identify and motivate the party, and make it clear it has its own political message, instead of just joining on with the CDU," Meyer said. "The criticism is that SPD hides behind the CDU too much. They are trying to end this perception."
Köhler enjoys a high popularity among voters
Meanwhile, the fact remains that Schwan can only be elected with the support of votes associated with the Greens and the Left Party -- a radical left-wing party with roots in the former East German Communist Party.
De-facto Left-SPD collaboration?
While the SPD, Left and Greens together would have enough popular support among voters to form a government, SPD leader Kurt Beck has stated in the past that he will never form a federal coalition with the Left.
Now, many observers see the decision to put up a presidential candidate as a de-facto move toward collaboration. Meyer agrees this could be "an unavoidable side effect" of the SPD decision to back Schwan in the presidential race.
"As soon as the SPD has a candidate of its own and the Left supports that candidate, then a new way and new form of cooperation unavoidably will ensue," he said.
For their part, CDU/CSU supporters are not happy about the kind of message the SPD is sends by opposing the presidential candidate put forth by its own coalition partner.
Schwan candidacy seen as provocation
Ralf Baus, team leader of the Domestic Policy division of the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation, acknowledges that the SPD has the right to put up a candidate, as do all the parties.
Still, "considering that the SPD is in a grand coalition with the CDU at the moment, and that it can only hope to win the election with help from the Left Party … that is definitely a provocation," he said.
It is especially irritating given that Koehler enjoys immense popularity, continued Baus. Some polls show the current president with an approval rating of nearly 80 percent.
"It would be one thing if this president had made mistakes, or wasn’t well liked. That would give the SPD an argument... But the number of people who would like to see him back in office is extremely high. To my mind, the SPD has to give a good reason why they would want to replace him," Baus said.
Presidential vote: sign of things to come?
So far the SPD has cited polls that show Germans say they would like to have a female president – an explanation that doesn’t carry much weight, according to Baus. Nor does it matter that Schwan, president of Viadrina University, near the Polish border, is generally considered an able candidate who is well-liked enough to draw votes across party lines.
Schwan, known for her trademark smile
Instead, he suggests the decision to back Schwan is a sign of "internal divisions" within the SPD. "Beck used to support Koehler, but the left wing of his party wanted this. They pressured him," posited Baus.
To an outsider, all the speculating and posturing over an election that is a year away, for a position that carries no power, could seem like much ado about nothing. But observers point out that presidential elections in Germany are frequently harbingers of national politics – and note that parliamentary elections are set for September, 2009, just a few months after the presidential vote.
"If you look back in history, you will see that in the procedure of electing president, coalitions formed that had a very important role to play. The process of who supports presidents is more important than the outcome," Meyer explained.
Outcome is difficult to foresee
"In this case it could open the avenue between normalizing relations between the SPD, the Greens and the Left," he added.
Who will benefit most from the decision to challenge Koehler is anyone’s guess, however.
A too-close association with the Left Party could damage the SPD by alienating some of their middle-of-the-road members, Baus said. Alternately, if the CDU/CSU and their allies the Free Democrats can’t manage to get Koehler elected, it could, indeed, signal a change in power ahead of the parliamentary vote. And that would be "a bad start" to the elections, he added.