An electoral college of 1,324 legislators and “ordinary citizens” will elect Germany’s next federal president today in the country’s first such election since the unification of the East and West four years ago.
Germany’s seventh president will have the difficult task of filling the shoes of outgoing President Richard von Weizsaecker, a respected statesman who is the embodiment of how many Germans would like their country to be seen by the rest of the world.
Over the course of his two five-year terms, Von Weizsaecker elevated the German presidency from a powerless, largely ceremonial position into an influential office that provides moral ballast for the nation, much needed at a time of economic recession, high unemployment and serious social stress coming in the wake of unification.
Von Weizsaecker has pleased many Germans by speaking out candidly on such controversial topics as the hardships posed by joining the former Communist East to the prosperous West and Germany’s continuing guilt from the Holocaust.
He has also earned high marks at home and abroad for attending memorial services for the victims of neo-Nazi attacks in Moelln and Solingen. The services were snubbed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who dismayed Germans by saying it was not necessary for the government to send a representative.
Von Weizsaecker must retire when his second term ends June 30.
Roman Herzog, the 60-year-old chief justice of Germany’s Constitutional Court and a member of Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union, is expected to win today’s vote.
Herzog, who was once the Interior minister for the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, has the reputation of a onetime law-and-order hard-liner who has mellowed somewhat in recent years.
Herzog made headlines in 1982 when he forced demonstrators in Baden-Wuerttemberg to pay their own police costs if they staged unauthorized sit-ins. Soon after his elevation to the Constitutional Court, however, he seemed to abandon his harsh views, ruling that demonstrations could not be banned in advance just because they might turn violent.
Although Herzog’s detractors have found it difficult to write him off as a right-wing gargoyle, and thus ill-suited to the presidency, Herzog has sent signals that he lacks the gifts for diplomacy and seemliness that have made Von Weizsaecker such an admired and successful president.
Earlier this month, for instance, he told a German interviewer that certain foreigners who did not want to become German citizens should be asked to leave Germany.
The suggestion was made in the course of a wide-ranging discussion in which Herzog also reiterated his longstanding view that Germany’s citizenship laws are “totally outdated” and that Germany ought to grant citizenship to those born on German soil, even the children of foreigners. (German citizenship is granted primarily on the basis of German blood lineage, and the German constitution does not recognize the concept of dual citizenship.)
But the media picked up mainly on the remark that some foreigners ought to leave, opening Herzog to the criticism that at best he was insensitive, and at worst he was helping to fuel the “foreigners out” sentiments of Germany’s neo-Nazi toughs.
Herzog is not the Christian Democrats’ first choice for the presidency.
Kohl had selected Steffen Heitmann, the ultraconservative justice minister for the eastern state of Saxony, but he was forced to withdraw amid controversy over his views on the role of women in society, on the rights and roles of foreigners in Germany and on Germany’s World War II past.
Herzog’s chief rival in today’s voting will be Social Democrat Johannes Rau, a former bookseller and publisher who is now premier of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous in Germany.
Rau is known as an earnest, clean and moderate politician and is an official of the Lutheran Church.
Commentators call him Brother Johannes and “the good man of Wuppertal"--after his home in the Ruhr Valley’s industrial belt--because he quotes the Bible in his speeches and often sounds like a preacher in the pulpit rather than a politician on the stump. So mild and agreeable is Rau’s image that three years ago even Kohl said he could imagine him becoming president.
If today’s balloting were a popular vote, Rau would certainly win.
In a recent poll in the news magazine Der Spiegel, more than half the respondents called him the best candidate, while only about 20% named Herzog.
But because of the way the electoral college is structured--it reflects the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary plurality--it is widely expected that Herzog will win, although not necessarily on the first ballot.
To achieve a majority, Herzog requires both the disciplined support of his fellow Christian Democrats and also some votes from outside the party, most likely from the Free Democrats, now the junior partners of Kohl’s governing coalition.
One of the questions to be answered today is whether Christian Democrats from what used to be East Germany will support their party’s candidate.
Eastern Germans in general believe that they are poorly represented in Bonn, and some eastern Christian Democrats have already said they do not think that Herzog is their candidate.
As for the centrist Free Democrats, they are fielding a candidate of their own and are unlikely to give Herzog their undivided support--not, at least, on the first or second ballot.