One of the characteristics of international politics is that countries have different ways of doing things. Most of my students are shocked to learn that Canada’s prime minister is one of the most powerful national executives in the world. He or she can pretty do whatever he or she wants, though there may be a political price in the House of Commons. Canadians long ago decided this was the system that fit them best. Likewise, some countries don’t have a president. In the U.K., the president’s jobs are divided between the prime minister and the queen.
When Germans put their government together in the aftermath of World War II, they wanted a strong chancellor but were determined to limit his or her power through a strong legislature. The Germans also decided to limit the power of the president to such things as signing bills the legislature approves. Mostly, the position is ceremonial. He or she was to be apolitical (regardless of past political alliances), and would serve as a symbol of moral authority. Influence would be by actions and speeches.
The most recent president, Christian Wulff, was accused of making some shady deals when he was state premier in Lower Saxony just before becoming president. For several weeks he fought demands that he resign, but his position was not sustainable. As Wulff put it, “The developments of recent days and months have shown that this confidence, and therefore my ability to act, have been lastingly impaired.” The Hanover prosecutor’s officer called for the German government to waive the president’s immunity from prosecution, and on Feb. 17, Wulff resigned. Chancellor Angela Merkel called off a trip to Rome and accepted Wulff’s resignation with the “utmost respect and deepest personal regret.” Importantly, Wulff is the second president who has had to resign in the past two years; Horst Kohler was the other one. Horst Seehofer, president of the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, will assume the role of president until a new one is selected.
One might have expected Merkel’s standing to have suffered, but she remains popular, primarily because of the hard-line position she took toward Greece and the changes the European Community demanded. Indeed,relations between Germany and Greece are badly strained.
The Wulff case was a distraction when Merkel was dealing with the EU economic crisis. The question the Germans face now is is who will replace him. Merkel has said that this time she wants a person who all three major parties — the Social Democrats, the Free Democrats and Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Party — can live with. If that fails, a special assembly made up of members of the lower house and representatives of Germany’s 16 states (a total of 1,244 members) would elect the president on March 18. Merkel has only a slim ruling majority, which means it would be difficult for her to push through her preferred candidate.
After meeting with the other parties, Merkel agreed to back a former East German activist for president: Joachim Gauck, a protestant pastor. In expressing her support for Gauck, Merkel, the daughter of an East German pastor, said, “Let’s not forget that it was churchmen like Joachim Gauck who helped bring about East Germany’s peaceful revolution” — in other words, the collapse of the former East Germany.
Gauck received a phone call from Merkel just after he landed in Berlin. To quote Gauck, “What moves me the most is that a person who was born during this sinister, dark war and then lived through 50 years of dictatorship, that such a person should be called upon to become head of state. One German newspaper said it best in a headline: “Gauck’s strength is his background.” He dedicated himself to fighting for human rights under a communist regime.
Gauck understands the demands of the office he might be about to assume and said he hopes “people won’t think I am a superman and a mistake-free individual.” Given the problems Germany has faced in finding a person with moral authority for the office, no one expects him to be a superman — just a moral example and leader.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.