Steinmeier’s future prospects: The Federal President’s busy waiting

WWhile the SPD, Greens and FDP are quietly exploring the content and shape of a joint federal government, the Federal President spends a busy week full of public appearances between two state visits.

On Tuesday, the Italian colleague Sergio Mattarella was our guest for lunch at Bellevue Palace, next Monday the Canadian Governor General Mary May Simon is coming. In between, Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid tribute to the Bundeswehr’s mission in Afghanistan, presented the new art equipment for his official residence, took part in a Thanksgiving service in East Friesland, and gave a speech to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of the deportation of Jews in Berlin.

Steinmeier’s appointment calendar shows a Federal President who is practically fully booked for business. Still, these autumn days are a time of waiting for him. Because in the discreet explorations of the future Berlin government partners, not only are political positions pinned down, but the personnel are also determined. The office of Federal President could be dragged into the distribution carousel with this formation of the government, since Steinmeier’s first five-year term of office ends next March.

The Federal President is not elected by the Bundestag, where the SPD, FDP and Greens have a majority, but by the twice as large Federal Assembly, which consists of all 735 Bundestag members and the same number of representatives from the federal states. But even in this body, the three possible future governing parties have a joint majority of at least 774 votes. Since the Federal President is not directly determined by the people in the German parliamentary system, the selection of candidates was also a party-political negotiation process in which, however, not just the current strength of the Bundestag parties, but many factors can take effect.

Steinmeier has given his office more weight

In the 16 years under Angela Merkel, in which the CDU / CSU were the strongest force, the Federal President was only appointed by the Union in two out of four cases. This was the case in the case of Horst Köhler and his successor Christian Wulff. After Wulff’s resignation, Joachim Gauck followed, who leaned towards the Greens, and finally Steinmeier, who had been one of the leading SPD politicians up until then. As Federal President, like most of his predecessors, he effectively renounced his party membership. In his first year in office he clearly demonstrated his non-party understanding of office: In the difficult situation that had arisen after the failure of the explorations for a Jamaica coalition made up of the Union, Greens and FDP, Steinmeier appealed to all parties, not least his own, the SPD, to live up to their democratic responsibilities. Grumbling, the Social Democrats, who had actually wanted to slip into the role of an opposition party, then returned to a grand coalition after months of negotiations.

That was the first of several occasions in which Steinmeier strengthened the weight of his office, and thus also that of the incumbent. He took another such opportunity in the spring by flatly announcing that he was available for a second term. None of his predecessors had previously made this known of their own accord – at least without prior assurance that a majority in the Federal Assembly would be guaranteed. Steinmeier threw this stone into the water when it was hardly foreseeable that the SPD would achieve a narrow victory in the federal election. His willingness to remain Federal President for a second five-year term of office could therefore not be perceived at the time as presumptuous or pretentious. The SPD praised his attitude in the spring; The FDP also praised Steinmeier’s move and even hoped for a broad political consensus for a second term in office.

In the current situation, it was not easy for both parties to decorate their garlands of praise in order to be able to put the post of Federal President in the negotiating pool of coalition talks. This is not only due to the fact that the incumbent has the support of 55 to 70 percent of the population in current surveys, but also because every candidate who, instead of Steinmeier, would now be nominated for the office of head of state at the end of coalition talks, with the Deficit would have to live, his occupation was practically in the same breath as the ministerial placement. For the Greens, for example, it could mean that the result of the negotiations on the formation of a government was an economic and climate ministry, the transport ministry and the office of the Federal President.

Such a classification in the executive branch would hardly serve the function of the head of state. For the SPD, of course, there remains a problem of its own if it sticks to this office and to Steinmeier: It would then not only include the Federal President, but also the Federal Chancellor (Olaf Scholz) and the Bundestag President (according to reports, SPD parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich is interested in this post) – the three highest of the five constitutional organs, which would then all be occupied by men.

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