Germany Picks Anti-Trump President as Trans-Atlantic Bonds Fray

  • Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier elected in first round
  • Merkel, SPD chose Steinmeier to avoid election-year dispute

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former German foreign minister who was a vocal critic of Donald Trump during the U.S. campaign, was elected as the country’s 12th postwar president.

The Social Democrat, who served two stints as foreign minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel, emerged as her governing coalition’s candidate last November as the parties sought to avoid a political spat over the appointment in an election year. With the support of Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc and the Social Democrats in a special assembly on Sunday, Steinmeier was elected in the first round to the mostly ceremonial post. 

While Merkel steered clear of sharing her views on Trump before his election as president, her top diplomat vociferously derided what he saw as a campaign that broke taboos and threatened trans-Atlantic bonds. At one point, Steinmeier called Trump a “hate preacher.” As head of state, Steinmeier will be Trump’s counterpart according to protocol, even if the German presidency lacks the political or policymaking power held by the chancellor.

The day after Trump’s surprise election victory, Merkel issued a couched warning that offered the new U.S. president German cooperation based on joint values, including democracy, respect for the rule of law and for human dignity “independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views.” Steinmeier was less diplomatic.

“The result is not what most German would have wished,” Steinmeier said on Nov. 9. “I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. Nothing will be easier, many things will become more difficult.”

Political Dissident

Steinmeier shunned political tension or any mention of Trump in an eight-minute speech following his election, though cited Germany as an “anchor of hope” in an increasingly unsettled world.

“We’re living in tumultuous times; many in our country feel insecure,” Steinmeier told the assembly after winning 931 of 1,253 votes cast.

Steinmeier, 61, will succeed Joachim Gauck, 77, the one-time Protestant pastor and political dissident in communist East Germany who opted to stand down after serving a single five-year term. Gauck will remain in office until March 18.

Political Role

The Federal Assembly, a constitutionally mandated body made up of lawmakers from the lower house and party representatives from the German states, convened in Berlin. Germany’s presidency mostly involves representing the country abroad, though Gauck has also intervened in domestic politics, including on Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis.

Steinmeier, who had a 79 percent approval rating this month in a poll for public broadcaster ARD, came forward as a presidential hopeful after Merkel failed to find a suitable candidate from within her party bloc willing to run. Sigmar Gabriel, the outgoing Social Democratic leader who succeeded Steinmeier as foreign minister, stepped into the void, advocating for Steinmeier as the coalition’s choice. Wanting to avoid a costly battle over a presidential pick ahead of the Sept. 24 election, Merkel relented.

SPD Surge

That setback is more pronounced now that the Social Democrats have enjoyed a surge in support after the surprise candidacy for chancellor of Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president. Enthusiasm for Schulz in the SPD base has narrowed the gap with Merkel seven months before the vote, with one poll last week showing the party ahead.

Even if Merkel’s support was reluctant, few questioned Steinmeier’s ability to take over the country’s highest office. Steinmeier came to Berlin as the chief of staff to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, overseeing German foreign intelligence in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. When Merkel took office in 2005 with the Social Democrats as junior partner, the Schroeder acolyte became foreign minister.

Steinmeier challenged Merkel for the chancellorship in 2009, which resulted in the Social Democrats’ worst result since World War II and a legislative term in the opposition, which Steinmeier led in the lower house. He returned to the Foreign Ministry when Merkel formed another so-called grand coalition with the SPD in 2013.

Merkel has had little luck in German presidential politics during her 11-year chancellorship. Horst Koehler, a former International Monetary Fund managing director whom she helped into office before she was chancellor, abruptly resigned in 2010, citing lack of support from political Berlin.

To replace Koehler, Merkel looked to party colleague Christian Wulff, a premier from Lower Saxony who resigned less than two years into his term amid a scandal involving legal probes. The chancellor initially opposed Gauck as a replacement, but her hand was forced when her coalition partner at the time threw its backing to him.

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