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On Sunday 12 February, with an absolute majority of 931 out of 1260 votes in the first round of voting in the German Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung), the popular SPD politician, Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was elected President of Germany.

In contrast to the incumbent President Joachim Gauck, whose term of office will finish on 18 March 2017, Steinmeier is a seasoned politician with significant foreign policy experience and is deemed to be the most popular politician in Germany at present. He held the post of Foreign Minister in two Grand Coalitions, from 2005 to 2009 and from 2013 to 2017 and served as Vice Chancellor from 2007 to 2009. The longest time which he spent away from federal politics since 1998 was when in 2010 he took a two-month leave to donate a kidney to his wife.

The past weeks have seen a dramatic shift in German government and party politics, particularly within President-elect Steinmeier’s own Social Democratic Party (SPD). Sigmar Gabriel, the party Chair, announced in late January that he would not stand as the SPD candidate to challenge Angela Merkel for the post of German Chancellor in the general election on 24 September 2017. Mr Gabriel will now head up the country’s Foreign Ministry, the position vacated by Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In turn, former European Parliament President Martin Schulz has been confirmed as the Social Democrats’ nominee, and the media are eagerly reporting on “The Schulz Effect” which has seen an exponential rise in new party memberships and poll numbers. Mr Schulz will also take over as party chair from Mr Gabriel.


Steinmeier Promises to Unite His Polarised Country

In a brief speech after his election, President-elect Steinmeier put emphasis on Germany’s role in the world. He called to mind how Germany, after the end of the second world war, found political stability in the foundations of Western democracy and said that in these “stormy times”, when the foundations of democracy were shaking elsewhere, Germany had to redouble its commitment to those values. Germany, according to Steinmeier, had become and had to remain an “anchor of hope”.

This reflects a theme in his acceptance speech after his nomination as candidate for the presidency, where he described the role of the President as that of a “Mutmacher”, someone who inspires courage and optimism and creates trust in the country’s democratic institutions. He further called for a political culture which is not “entrenched in bogeyman stereotypes and echo-chambers”, but allows a constructive discussion about the country’s future.

Steimeier’s message of making Germany a bulwark of Western democracy and courage in a time of domestic and geopolitical uncertainty will resonate with many Germans, but the challenges the President-elect now faces in realising this vision are considerable. Although Steinmeier’s presidency may provide an important point of stability in the context of political turbulence at home and abroad, uniting a German people in a period of rising populism on both sides of the Atlantic will prove to be a delicate political balancing act.

The Challenges Ahead

President-elect Steinmeier’s speech struck conciliatory and encouraging tones and promised that he would work hard to earn the trust of those who had not supported his election. As president of a polarised Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party now has seats in ten of the country’s sixteen State Parliaments, he committed himself to uniting the country in the face of rising anti-establishment sentiment and xenophobia. He called on all Germans to have the courage to separate fact from lie and to defend “freedom and democracy in a united Europe”.

Image © 2017 AFP PHOTO / Axel Schmidt