In the wake of the resignation of Germany’s President Christian Wulff last week, there were many names which were circulating around as a possible successor candidate, but it did not take more than a weekend for a consensus to form around Joachim Gauck – someone who already generated much popular support as a presidential candidate in 2010.
Gauck has emerged as one solution to the challenge of finding a common denominator. Not only have both the Greens and the SPD expressed their interest in Gauck, but the FDP surprised the Chancellor with an announcement that they also are interested in proposing Gauck as a candidate. This initially presented Chancellor Merkel with a dilemma. She had opposed Gauck for the Presidency in 2010 and his renewed candidacy could be interpreted as evidence that she bet on the wrong horse by supporting Wulff. Furthermore, it was not expected that she would change her mind now. But in the end, Merkel had to accept what was a building wave of support for Gauck. And now it appears that he will be elected on March 18.
The choice for Gauck also hinged on his popular support which has remained intact, as has Gauck’s integrity and national reputation as a defender of civil rights in the old GDR and a pathfinder for Germans, both east and west, following unification
It would be a healthy signal for the country if March 18 would need only one round to complete Gauck’s election– a task that would require an absolute majority of the Federal Convention. Christian Wulff needed three rounds before he could achieve a simple majority.
A mutli-party majority would be a helpful start for the new President as he embarks on establishing a trustful link with the German public. Furthermore, it would be helpful for a Chancellor who needs to sustain her support for a number of challenges which will last longer than the election of a new President next month.
The end of the Wulff Presidency
The assumption of innocence before guilt is firmly built into the German judicial system. But in political office, trust is equally important in the eyes of the nation. German President Christian Wulff finally lost that trust and drew the consequences. His resignation came after a long and media drenched road of accusations and explanations followed by more accusations. The final straw was the decision of a state prosecutor to investigate previous dealings of Christian Wulff when he was Minister President of Lower Saxony. That step requires the German Parliament to vote to lift the immunity of the President to permit such an investigation to proceed. There was no question that the Parliament would have voted for it.
A few weeks ago, a resignation was deemed unlikely, in particular because Chancellor Merkel, the original sponsor of Christian Wulff for the Presidency, stood by him. In the end that support was not enough to stem the tide against Wulff. A state prosecutor asking the parliament to investigate the Federal President is unprecedented in Germany.
For now, it does not seem that Wulff’s resignation has impacted the Chancellor negatively despite her previous admonitions for the President, as she is enjoying increasing levels of public support in light of her efforts to deal with the euro crisis. The Wulff affair did not seem to interrupt those trends.
Wulff’s mid-term resignation followed that of his predecessor, Horst Köhler. He resigned before his second term was over, following controversy over public comments he made about Germany’s interests in Afghanistan. Köhler’s decision was attributed to his thin-skinned reaction to criticism in the media. Wulff’s decision was based on actual investigations that involve possible illegal activities.
The Role of the Presidency
The whole affair resurfaces questions about the role of the Presidency in an atmosphere of skepticism and mistrust surrounding politicians and politics. The German presidency was designed to be an office above politics, even though each president has always been a product of politics. That formula has worked during the past six plus decades. Even the fact that there now have been two back-to-back Presidential resignations within two years will not change that.
However, Joachim Gauck will face a tough task in facing a public who is increasingly angered by politicians and business leaders who seem to think laws and tax requirements do not apply to them. In Germany, as well as the U.S., mistrust of politicians is growing. A ten percent approval rating of Congress in the U.S. and the surge of the new Pirate party in Germany are only some manifestations of these transatlantic trends in mistrust. The criterion of trust is critical to the importance of the office, because the President is needed more than ever to lead Germany in national debates over difficult issues.
The search for a suitable candidate began immediately after Wulff resigned. What criteria will be used to select that person? Given the challenges Germany faces at home and abroad, there is a need to find a person who can give voice to both the challenges as well as the concerns of citizens. While the Chancellor plays a central role in this amidst the ongoing decisions and policy choices in Berlin, the presidency is seen as above the political fray and has thus more potential to be a unifying power.
The Federal Presidency remains an institutional platform to offer perspective on the larger issues and questions at stake. There remains both room and need for that role, particularly at a time when politics often reduces debates to dueling accusations and rhetorical attacks both on the floor of the Parliament or in the media frenzy drawing on it
Joachim Gauck has agreed to be presented as a candidate for the Presidency. Together with Angela Merkel – two Germans with their previous lives shaped in the GDR and then in a unified Federal Republic – will be the leaders of a country in search of both solutions as well as direction. They will need to adjust to each other. The Chancellor needs to focus on policy priorities, process, and of course the politics of government. The President needs to offer ideas and inspiration.
The formula has worked before. Time will tell if it can be successful again.