Category Archives: Germany

Germany – Party strategies and the selection of electors for presidential elections, 1949-2017

This blog post is based on an article by Philipp Köker recently published in German Politics.

Indirectly elected presidents and their elections are still an underresearched subject in political science. Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of fierce competition between political parties over filling the nation’s highest office (many of these documented on this very blog) that highlight the presidency’s importance. In fact, all parties have a vested interest in determining the next president: Indirectly elected presidents often hold important reserve powers and are thus able to tip the balance of power in one’s favour. At the same time, they are effectively agents of parliament and thus less likely to interfere in the work of their principals. However, indirect presidential elections are also publicly observed events that allow parties to send signals to voters and position themselves for the next legislative elections. Therefore, we need to ask: How do political parties strategically approach the indirect election of presidents? Specifically, what value do parties place on capturing the presidency compared to signalling their voters?

The case of Germany offers a particularly interesting perspective on this question. The German president is elected by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Convention), an electoral college consisting of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of electors nominated by Länder (state) parliaments. There are up to three rounds of (secret) voting in the Federal Convention – in the first two rounds, candidates need an absolute majority of electors to win; in the third and final round a relative majority suffices (to date all but three out of ten elections were held in a single round note that no candidate has ever been elected with less than a majority of votes). Electors are elected by state parliaments using proportional representation and must only satisfy criteria for active suffrage; thus, parties have free reign in who to nominate and their delegations can also include nominees who are not members of state legislatures (extra-parliamentarian electors – EPEs).

As can be seen in the above figure, state delegations since 1949 have always included a substantive share of extra-parliamentarian electors (EPEs). Media reporting regularly focusses primarily on the various celebrities (athletes, singers, writers, actors, and socialites) among the EPEs, but parties also nominate representatives of affiliated organisations (e.g. the Social Democratic Party always nominated the president of the German Trade Union Federation). Thus, EPEs can act as celebrity advocates for political parties and provide an opportunity to strengthen ties with other organisations or reward local campaigners. However, EPEs are not subject to the same kind of political socialisation or institutional pressures as deputies of state legislatures; information on their political preferences is also often limited, so that their voting behaviour is considerably more difficult to predict. Therefore, the share of EPEs in party delegations presents an indicator of the relative importance that parties place on capturing the presidency (fewer EPEs) versus exploiting the process for publicity and reward (more EPEs), and allows for assessing the determinants of their strategic considerations.

My main argument is that parties primarily want to see their chosen candidate elected president (or delay the election by preventing a victory in the first two rounds when their candidate has no realistic chance of winning). Exploiting the media attention of the election and strengthening ties with other groups presents a secondary goal. Both goals are in conflict with each other as the realisation of the primary goal requires high levels of voting unity, whereas the subsidiary goals can most effectively be achieved by nominating the – less predictable – EPEs as electors and risking deviations from party line. Based on these initial considerations, I formulate seven hypotheses on when parties should nominate more/fewer EPEs as part of their state delegation to the electoral college.

In my analysis, I use a new data set on 791 party delegations between 1949 and 2017 and use the share of EPEs as the dependent variable. The results confirm most of my hypotheses, yet also challenge some conventional wisdom about presidential elections in Germany. Scholars and journalists previously assumed that parties will nominate more EPEs when the outcome of the election is clear beforehand and competition is low. However, it appears that competition in the electoral college only played a minor role (if any). Rather, party strategies were influenced by the varying signalling power of the elections, i.e. the way in which the presidential election helped to position them with regard to upcoming legislative elections.

Parties were for instance more risk-averse and nominated fewer EPEs when they were part of the federal government, or when federal elections approached. Both scenarios increased the ‘seriousness’ of the election for political parties: Although research has shown no evidence for presidential coattails in Germany, governing parties should perceive themselves to be under greater pressure to display high levels of voting unity. The same applies to all parties if federal elections approach. In contrast, parties nominated more EPEs when they had a larger support base to reward (likely to include more representatives of other organisations, or because larger parties were rather able to accommodate EPEs alongside their political leaders). Interestingly, although electors are chosen at the state level, the control variables about parties’ membership in state governments and approaching state elections did not show statistically significant effects. While it appears that there is a need for a further differentiation of EPEs (e.g. some members of state governments do not or cannot hold legislative office at the same time), this overall supports my assertion that the nomination of electors is a federal strategy that is implemented at state level.

Unfortunately, there is yet little systematic and comparative research on indirect presidential elections. However, Germany is not the only country to elect their president in an extended electoral college (other cases include India and Italy) and/or includes extra-parliamentarian electors in the process (Estonia and Nepal do so, too). Furthermore, the signalling power / publicity potential of indirect presidential elections is likely to exist in other countries, too. Future research should thus analyse the role of the different compositions of electoral colleges, and assess and to what extent parties in other countries are torn between electoral success and exploiting the elections’ publicity potential.

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This blog post is based on a recently published article:
Köker, Philipp. 2019. Risk vs Reward Strategies in Indirect Presidential Elections: Political Parties and the Selection of Presidential Electors in Germany, 1949-2017.
German Politics, [Online First; DOI: 10.1080/09644008.2019.1590549].
The data underlying this study are available via figshare DOI:
10.6084/m9.figshare.6263060.v1

Historic presidencies and their legacies – Weimar Germany and the German Democratic Republic

No other date in modern Germany is as laden with significance as 9th November. While two events from the darkest chapters of German history – Hitler’s unsuccessful ‘beer hall putsch’ in 1923 and the Reichspogromnacht (often called ‘the night of broken glass’) in 1938 – took place on this date, the day is also associated with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the proclamation of the first Republic in 1918. In this blog post, I take the recent anniversary of the latter two as the occasion to look more closely at the presidencies of the Weimar Republic and the German Democratic Republic. Political scientists are largely aware of the (powerful) Weimar presidency, not least due to the fact that Maurice Duverger included it as an example of semi-presidentialism in his seminal book and article. However, the fact that the German Democratic Republic likewise had a single-person presidency for the first eleven years of its existence is relatively unknown.

Weimar Republic (1919-1934): The president as an ‘Ersatzkaiser’

The first German president Friedrich Ebert in 1925 / (c) Bundesarchiv

The presidency of the Weimar Republic was the first instance of a non-hereditary head of state in Germany. Thus, the discussions in the constitutional convention focussed among others on the French experience, although it was rather seen as a warning against concentrating too much power in the presidency than genuine inspiration, and other republics. Nevertheless, the convention eventually decided against a collegiate head of state and created a comparatively powerful single-person presidency. In hindsight, it was often seen as too strong and was therefore labelled ‘Ersatzkaiser’ – ‘substitute emperor’. Nevertheless, not all relevant powers are necessarily captured by contemporary approaches to measure presidential power. The president appointed the Reichskanzler (chancellor) and the cabinet ministers, yet these had to step down if the Reichstag (parliament) passed a vote of no-confidence. The constitution clearly gave the chancellor the right to determine the general direction in policy-making, yet presidents also claimed such a right for themselves, especially in foreign and defence policy. The president had no formal veto power (interestingly, the possibility of a particular type of pocket veto existed even then) but could put a bill to a referendum. The president could also dissolve the parliament at any time; however, at least officially this was only possible once for the same reason. Last, the president was able to force individual states to meet their obligations to the federation – even with military force. Shugart and Carey (1992) give the Weimar president an overall score of 16, largely driven by his prerogatives in government formation and dismissal and parliamentary dissolution, which is more than the current Russian presidency (14) but less than the Belarussian one (19).

Package veto Partial veto Decree Excl. intro. Legislation Budgetary powers Referenda TOTAL Cabinet formation Cabinet dismissal Censure Dissolution TOTAL
0 0 2 0 0 2 4 4 4 0 4 12

The election of the presidency contained a number of additional notable quirks. The first president Friedrich Ebert (Social Democrats) was still elected by the constitutional convention for a seven year term; the following two contests were held by popular vote. Thereby, a candidate needed to win an absolute majority in the first round of voting or, failing that, a relative majority in the second round. The second round was however not a run-off – any candidates from the first round could run again and even new candidates could be proposed. In fact, the second president, Paul von Hindenburg, did not compete in the first round of the 1925 election but was only a nominated by the national-conservative ‘Reichsblock’ after its initial candidate was considered not to be sufficiently appealing to beat out a popular opponent. Contrary to most modern semi-presidential systems, the Reichstag also had the right to initiate a recall referendum to dispose of the president (requiring an absolute 2/3 majority of deputies). However, if the recall failed, the Reichstag was to be dissolved and the president considered elected for another seven year-term.

The presidency of the GDR

Portrait of GDR president Wilhelm Pieck on a wallhanging commemorating 10 years of the GDR / (c) LEMO

In October 1949, a little less than five months after the establishment of the (West) German Federal Republic, the German Democratic Republic was founded and enacted a new parliamentary constitution that had already been drafted a year earlier. The GDR was a real-socialist people’s republic and thus naturally not a democracy. However, looking at its institutional structure is nonetheless interesting as it diverges from other countries of the Eastern bloc. In particular, until 1960 it was organised as an archetypical parliamentary democracy and surprisingly similar to its new West German counterpart. The president was elected indirectly by the Volkskammer (people’s chamber – lower house) and the Länder Chamber (states’ chamber – upper house) for a four year-term. Only a relative majority was necessary to elect the president, yet an absolute 2/3 majority in both chambers was needed to recall the president. The president appointed members of the government, yet the constitution stipulated that the largest party group in the lower house nominated the minister-president (prime minister), that each party group of at least 40 MPs was part of the government, and that parliament confirmed the government before it took office. The president had no right to veto legislation; however, he was allowed to voice concerns over the constitutionality of acts and ask the lower chamber’s constitutional commission to investigate these concerns. The president could also not dissolve parliament – the constitution only allowed for self-dissolution (or automatic dissolution in case parliament passed a vote of no-confidence in a new government). The fact that all acts of the president required the countersignature of the prime minister or the respective cabinet minister furthermore highlights the presidency’s subordinate position. Thus, when we apply Shugart and Carey’s (1992) scheme to measure presidential power, we only arrive at a score of just 1 (thanks to the stipulation on a constructive vote of no-confidence).

Package veto Partial veto Decree Excl. intro. Legislation Budgetary powers Referenda TOTAL Cabinet formation Cabinet dismissal Censure Dissolution TOTAL
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1

The legacy of historic presidencies

After the death of Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, Adolf Hitler as Reichskanzler became acting chancellor and merged the functions of chancellor and president – a move confirmed shortly after in an only moderately democratic referendum. The office was only revived for three weeks when Karl Dönitz took over the office after Hitler’s suicide until the German surrender and then ceased to exist. In the GDR, the office of president was similarly abolished with the death of its officeholder – after Wilhelm Pieck, who had held the position of president since 1949, died in 1960, the presidency was transformed into the ‘Staatsrat’ (State Council). The State Council still had a president who acted as de-facto head of state and head of the executive, but it was legally a collegiate organ. Although there were plans to revive the presidency of the GDR after the fall of the Berlin wall, this never happened due to Germany’s reunification in 1990.

The legacy of the Weimar presidency is much stronger, although it largely served as a negative example. During the West German constitutional convention, delegates quickly agreed that the strong and popularly elected presidency of the Weimar republic had been one of its greatest problems. Consequently, they created a weak, indirectly elected office, and placed responsibility for governance in the hands of the chancellor. Even today, calls for the introduction of popular presidential elections are regularly answered by referring to the Weimar experience and the dangers of populism (as such, arguments often resemble Juan Linz’ ‘Perils of presidentialism’). German presidents are now rarely called upon to provide political (rather than moral) leadership; yet, the Weimar experience and reflections at the constitutional convention continue to influence the way in which incumbents interpret and perform their role as head of state.

Germany – President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the unofficial foreign minister

After more than seven years as Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier stepped down from his cabinet post to become the country’s 12th Federal President in early 2017. Despite his new role and the limited prerogatives of the office, Steinmeier remains the most prominent voice in German foreign policy – almost as if he had never left the foreign ministry.

German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier | © German Presidential Office / Henning Schacht 2018

The constitutionally prescribed role of the German president is generally limited to representative functions, although it affords office-holders with some leeway in times of crisis. The representative function extends to foreign affairs and as head of state the president signs international treaties on behalf of the German Federal Republic. Nevertheless, contrary to other countries the president does not take part in substantive foreign policy decision or represent the country at intergovernmental meetings.

Steinmeier was elected by the outgoing ‘grand coalition’ of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in early 2017 and it can arguably be credited to his exceptionally strong leadership that parties renewed their coalition following the autumn 2017 legislative elections (in particular, persuading the Social Democratic leadership to make themselves available as junior coalition partner once again). Already shortly after his inauguration, Steinmeier harshly criticised developments surrounding the Central European University in Hungary during his speech to the European Parliament and his criticism of the far-right Alternative for Germany has likely been noted internationally. He furthermore made no efforts to retract or soften any statements he had made during his ministerial tenure (most prominently his assessment of U.S.-president Donald Trump as a hate preacher and danger to democracy).

Having just conceded his post as party leader and designated Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, his immediate successor in the foreign ministry – vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel – had a more difficult start and only slowly came into his own. However, Gabriel already lost his post less than a year later in the cabinet reconfiguration following the renewal of the grand coalition. His successor, former minister of justice Heiko Maas, has only formally been in office since March this year and is still trying to make his mark. His open criticism of Vladimir Putin’s re-election and arguments in favour of ongoing sanctions as well as his opposition to tariffs introduced by the U.S. against car imports were widely noted. Nevertheless, he still lacks the reputation and gravitas that enabled Steinmeier to assert German interests on the European and international level.

In contrast, president Steinmeier has been able to maintain a much more influential voice in Germany’s foreign policy. During his recent state visit to the United States (notably yet unsurprisingly lacking an invitation to visit the White House), although once again largely representative in character and not an event that would usually make the front pages of any newspaper, he articulated more clearly than ever his vision of Germany as a leader in promoting democracy and becoming an antipole to the politics of the current U.S. administration.

However, the reason Steinmeier has been able to maintain such a vocal role in Germany foreign policy is not merely the result of his own strength and political opportunity. Appearances by the president are closely coordinated with the Chancellor’s office and the the foreign ministry (a few years ago, government MPs even sought to find legal means to ‘muzzle’ the president with regard to foreign policy). Thus, at least partly Steinmeier is taking an active role because he is allowed to do so. Yet at the same time, the Federal government is currently caught up in discussions about refugee policy (any European solutions are regarded as remit of the Chancellor, so that the foreign ministry does not play a role here) and the respective conflict between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Coalition parties (including Steinmeier’s own Social Democrats) may thus also benefit from Steinmeier’s activism in foreign policy given that they currently lack the resources to set the tone in this area and the president has not majorly deviated from their preferences. Yet, the more the president is afforded freedom, the more difficult it will be to rein him in once government priorities change. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has already set a precedent through his active involvement in government formation; he may set one in the formulation of German foreign policy as well.

Germany – The unexpected leadership role of President Steinmeier in coalition talks

The results of the German federal election of 24 September 2017 shook up the country’s party system more than ever before. Both Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic and Social Union (CDU/CSU) and her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), registered significant losses, while four smaller parties – polling between just 8.9% and 12.6% – also entered the Bundestag. While far from unexpected, this result has created a particularly difficult bargaining environment for coalition talks. Amidst the new parliamentary arithmetic, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier has taken on an expected leadership role and could influence the formation and party composition of the next German government more than any of his predecessors.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) meets with SPD leader Martin Schulz | image via bundespraesident.de

Already hours after the first results were announced, SPD leader Martin Schulz declared that his party – having achieved the worst result since 1949 and without possibility to form a left of centre coalition with Greens and LINKE – would not renew its coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU and become part of the opposition. Given that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered the Bundestag for first time after just missing the 5% threshold in 2013, is universally shunned by the other parties, the ‘Jamaica’ option seemed the only possibility to form a majority government. Named after the combination of parties’ traditional colours (CDU/CSU = black, Green Party = green, FDP = yellow) this would have created a coalition which has hitherto only existed on local level. While CDU/CSU and FDP have governed together on both federal and state level and CDU/CSU and Greens have recently (if only sporadically) started to cooperate on state level, the economically liberal FDP and left-leaning Greens seemed unlikely bedfellows. Formal coalition talks between the three parties only started a month after the election, yet collapsed two weeks ago after the FDP withdrew its participation. Since then, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier (formerly SPD) has taken an unusually active role in managing the coalition talks and encouraging parties to find a solution to avoid snap elections.

Since 1949, coalition formation in Germany has been exclusively dominated by parties. While the president formally proposes a candidate for chancellor to parliament after elections, presidents have always proposed the candidate chosen by parties once coalition talks were concluded. Only if the president’s candidate fails to gain a majority can the Bundestag attempt to elect its own chancellor with a majority. If in the end parliament fails to elect a majority candidate (which the president has to appoint), a final vote is held and it is at the president’s discretion to appoint a candidate who has only gained a relative majority of votes.

As leader of the largest party, Angela Merkel appears to be the only serious candidate for chancellor. However, she has repeatedly voiced her opposition both to leading a minority government and to triggering snap elections (a likewise complicated process; see below). In the aftermath of the collapse of the Jamaica talks, president Steinmeier unusually strongly appealed to parties to act responsibly and continues to hold publicised meetings with leaders of all parties. Especially his meeting with former co-partisan Martin Schulz seems to have had an effect as the SPD leader has now softened its stance on retreating to the opposition benches. However, he faced an immediately backlash from the party’s youth wing; the SPD is also likely to once again hold a ballot on any new coalition among its members.

There is no deadline for president Steinmeier to nominate a candidate for Chancellor, yet once he does the pressure is on parties to build a functioning (majority or minority) government. It is unlikely that Steinmeier will start the process before parties have made significant progress towards a new coalition, yet this possibility – together with the German constitution’s obsession with stability – gives him the upper hand. Once appointed, a chancellor can only be removed by the ways of a constructive vote of confidence (i.e. when a new Chancellor is elected with a majority) – even if a chancellor loses a vote of confidence and asks the president to dissolve the Bundestag, the dissolution remains at the president’s discretion (the Bundestag cannot dissolve itself). After previous dissolutions were heavily criticised due to the fact that sitting chancellors only feigned a loss of confidence, It is unlikely that Steinmeier will readily agree to such a move. Last, Steinmeier is in the rare situation that his five-year term only ends after the next regular federal elections and he is thus less bound by considerations about his re-election (which will partially rely on electors from the German states in any case).

It is thanks to this combination of factors that president can currently take on this (unexpected) leadership role in party coalition talks. While the old government is only provisionally still in post, he almost has a legitimacy advantage over the yet unformed government and can use his position to actively shape public opinion as well as increase pressure on political parties.

Overall, this sheds a new light on the role of the German president and highlights the value of the office. While scholarship (including my own) have so far rather focussed on the interference of presidents in day-to-day politics and resulting complications and ineffectiveness, the example at hand shows how presidents – even if only vested with reserve powers – can become guarantors of stability.

Germany – Honorary pay and post-presidency perks: How to deal with former presidents

Recent news reports that former German president Christian Wulff had taken up the role of authorised representative of Turkish fashion label Yargici have rekindled a ‘smouldering’ debate about the role and entitlements of former presidents in Germany. The flames of this discussion, last hotly conducted following Wullf’s resignation amidst corruption allegations and attempts to suppress related news reports, have been fanned further by criticism of the new offices for former president Joachim Gauck, Wulff’s successor. Although the upcoming general election has meant that the topic received comparatively less attention, it is bound to return in the next years and changes to ex-presidents’ status are likely.

Living German ex-Presidents | image via bundespraesident.de

For a long time, post-political careers of German politicians were not a widely debated issue. Cabinet ministers often remained members of the Bundestag after serving in government and usually retired from politics – and work life – in their 60s and 70s. Chancellors usually left office at a similar age and refrained from controversial activities (the work of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) as lobbyist for Russian companies is a notable exception). Federal presidents on the other hand were usually already in their mid-sixties or older when taking office and had thus little opportunity to develop a new career after leaving office. This trend is mirrored in a number of other parliamentary republics, although it is not uncommon for younger former office-holders to re-enter politics (e.g. Latvian president Valdis Zatlers founded his own party and entered parliament as an MP after being denied re-election as president).

From the point of taking office, German presidents are entitled to an “honorary pay” of €236,000 p.a. for life, so that – as is commonly argued – former presidents do not need to pursue any other employment upon leaving office. Particularly the resignation of Christian Wulff after less than two years in office and aged only 53 has opened a number questions in this regard – For instance: Is a president entitled to honorary pay if they do not complete their term of office? And who is responsible for deciding about a president’s claim to honorary pay? While Wulff continued to receive his honorary pay after leaving office prematurely and the above questions remain unresolved, politicians agreed on ensuring that at least the ex-presidents’ offices – an important post-presidency perk – were run on a more cost-effective basis. Both Christian Wulff and his successor Joachim Gauck have thus not opened their offices in their former hometowns or pricey parts of Berlin, but in buildings belonging to the Bundestag (although this, too, remains controversial – see below). Furthermore, their number of staff is limited en par with offices for former chancellors.

Since Christian Wulff was cleared of corruption allegations in 2014, the majority of political commentators have quietly accepted the fact that Christian Wulff continues to receive honorary pay – also because he represented Germany at a number of occasions (former presidents frequently step in for their successors or chancellors at state funerals) and kept a relatively low public profile. Wulff, a trained lawyer, also opened a legal practice in his home town of Hanover – a move likewise regarded as largely uncontroversial as he returned to his original profession. Nevertheless, the move to become an authorised representative and thus not merely an advisor but active part of a business has changed perceptions of what might be an acceptable post-office career for a former president. Furthermore, politicians and citizens alike have been irritated by the fact that honorary pay is not reduced as a reflection of addition earnings – entitlements from state pensions on the other hand are counted against any honorary pay after reaching retirement age.

Yet Christian Wulff is not the only former president who has recently been criticised over expenditure. As mentioned above, former presidents are entitled to a fully staffed office upon leaving the office to be able to fulfil the role of ‘elder statesman’. Joachim Gauck left office earlier this year and his office has now been opened in the buildings of the Bundestag. Nevertheless, Gauck incurred charges for installing additional security on his floor (despite the building already being under the same protective measures as other parliamentary buildings) and a personal toilet with security lock for the president (costing €52,000) as well as €35,000 for new furniture. In addition, two of Gaucks members of staff have effectively received promotions and Gauck chief of cabinet in particular now earns more than he did when Gauck was still in office.

The only other living president, Horst Köhler, presents an interesting counter-example to his successors: Although Köhler claims an allowance for his office in an upscale office park in Berlin, he has refrained from claiming any honorary pay since leaving office. However, this is can hardly be an example to follow – as a former director of the International Monetary Fond (IMF), Köhler likely has a private pension that would far exceed a former president’s honorary pay.

Thus overall the question remains on how to deal with former presidents. It is clear that the traditional model predicated on the idea that the presidency is the crowning and final achievement of one’s life is – thanks to the election of younger candidates and longer life expectancy of former presidents – no longer practical. Furthermore, as the additional earnings of active politicians come under greater scrutiny it becomes even more difficult to justify expenditures for former holders of a largely representative office to the public. The next Bundestag would be in an interesting position to regulate on these questions as it is not involved in the next presidential election and parties can thus debate the issue with greater flexibility. However, viable proposals for change are still lacking as the most concrete suggestions stem from the discussions about Christian Wulff and would thus only regulate some very specific aspects of this complicated matter.

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For follow-up reading, you may be interested in my comparison of European presidents’ salaries:
Presidents and Paupers I: How much do Western European presidents earn?
Presidents and Paupers II: How much do Central and East European presidents earn?

 

Germany – Former Foreign Minister and vice-Chancellor elected new federal president

On Sunday, 12 February 2017, the German Federal Convention elected two-time Foreign Minister and former vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the new German Federal President. Given that Steinmeier (Social Democratic Party – SPD) was the joint candidate of the ‘grand’ government coalition of SPD and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), his election with almost 75% of votes is not surprising. What is more interesting about this election is its potential signalling power for the Bundestag (general) election in autumn 2017 and discussions about the role of the German president.

Plenary of the 16th Federal Convention, 12 February 2017 | photo via bundestag.de

Following the announcement of president Joachim Gauck, elected with  in February 2012 following the resignation of Christian Wulff in the wake of corruption allegations, selecting a candidate was a tricky issue for the coalition government. German parties have generally been cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future (or continued) coalitions on the federal level. SPD and CDU/CSU have only infrequently supported the same candidate (exceptions are the re-elections of Theodor Heuss [Free Democratic Party] in 1954, Heinrich Lübke [CDU] in 1964, and Richard von Weizsacker [CDU] in 1989, as well as the election of Joachim Gauck [non-partisan] in 2012). During all previous ‘grand coalitions’ between Social and Christian Democrats, both parties rather supported different candidates in alliance with either Free Democrats (FDP) or Greens with a view of forming the next federal government together with them. The joint nomination of then Foreign Minister and previous vice-Chancellor Steinmeier is thus a novelty in so far as it is not the re-election of a popular president or election prominent non-partisan (such as Gauck who a majority of Germans would have already preferred to Wulff in 2010). At the time, Chancellor and CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel as well as CSU leader and minister-president of Bavaria Horst Seehofer may have agreed to Steinmeier’s candidacy hoping that this would eliminate a strong and popular rival in the next federal elections. However, with the recent nomination of Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament (2012-2017), as candidate for Chancellor and party chairman, the SPD has recently experienced a increase in popularity which could now interact favourably with the prestige of Steinmeier’s election. Although the SPD is still far from beating the CDU/CSU, it could gain a significantly larger vote share than initially expected. Both Steinmeier and Schulz have also been outspoken critics of US president Donald Trump and the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), while Merkel has had to maintain a more stateswoman-like attitude towards the new president and may still hope for some CDU-turned-AfD-voters to return.

The fact that Steinmeier’s first round victory was not surprising aside, the voting results for other candidates and discussions accompanying the election were almost equally as interesting. Contrary to many other European parliamentary systems, the German president is not exclusively elected by parliament and the Federal Convention – the electoral college only convened to elect the president – is not dominated by the members of the federal parliament. It consists of the members of the Bundestag and the same number of electors nominated by the 16 state parliaments in accordance with the population size (thus, the Federal Convention does not practice the same asymmetry as the Federal Council, Germany’s quasi-upper chamber and representation of state governments at federal level). Electors do not need to be members of state parliaments, so that parties also regularly nominate various VIPs – this time including football coach Joachim Löw, actress Veronika Ferres and well-known drag queen and activist Olivia Jones (aka Oliver Knobel). In the past, these elections were usually the time for editorials and opposition politicians to call for a popular election of the president. Yet this year, hardly any such proposals were voiced, likely in connection with the recent experiences in the United States, but also (and likely more prominently) Austria and the high support for Marine Le Pen in France. In fact, it was the fear of the rise of another populist leader that led the authors of the German post-war constitution to institute an indirect election of the president.

Thanks to the the inclusion of state representatives, Steinmeier was not the only candidate. Leftist party Die LINKE (also represented in the Bundestag) nominated well-known political scientist and poverty expert Christoph Butterwegge, the Alternative for Germany nominated its deputy leader Albrecht Glaser and the Free Voters from Bavaria nominated laywer and TV judge Alexander Hold. Although not represented in any German state parliament, the satirical party “Die Partei” also had its candidate in the running – Engelbert Sonneborn, 79-year old father of party leader and MEP Martin Sonneborn. This was thanks to the fact that the endorsement of a single member is sufficient for nominating a candidate, in this case the endorsement of a single Pirate Party deputy of the state legislature in North-Rhine Westphalia. Neither of these candidates came even close to endangering Steinmeier’s victory, yet notably all of them – except Sonneborn – received more votes than those of the parties supporting them. Furthermore, 103 (or 8.2%) electors abstained – while these likely came from CDU/CSU electors, it is difficult to point and may also include a number of SPD, FPD and Green electors who were disappointed with the lack of options (when all but Die LINKE and far-right National Democratic Party did not support the election of Joachim Gauck in 2012, the number of abstentions even reached 108).

Last, the address of Bundestag president Norbert Lammert, who chairs the proceedings of the Federal Convention ex-officio, received almost as much attention as Steinmeier’s acceptance speech. Lammert used the traditional opening statements for thinly veiled criticism of the policies of US president Donald Trump and the populist rhetoric of the Alternative for Germany, triggering discussions among legal experts whether he had violated his duty to remain neutral (see here [in German]; interestingly, this incident shows some parallels to discussions about statements by House of Commons speaker John Bercow in the UK).

The election of Steinmeier will not change the generally harmonious relationship between the presidency and the coalition government. However, Steinmeier may either try to assume a more internationally visible role than his predecessors – or he might be coaxed into doing do. Only recently, Steinmeier was still involved in negotiating major international treaties and he is well-connected and respected. While this may lay the foundation for more independent political action, the German constitution and established political practice (to which he can be expected to adhere) limit the potential for unilateral action and require him to coordinate intensively with the Chancellor and Foreign Ministry. The latter two might therefore also be tempted to use the new president to some degree – have criticism of Trump and other populist leaders delivered through the president while remaining neutral themselves.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Germany – The headache of choosing a presidential candidate

When German Federal President Joachim Gauck declared that he would not run for a second term in February 2017, The Guardian described it as a ‘headache for Merkel‘. Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor best known for his work in overseeing the extensive archives of the former East German secret police 1991-2000, had been elected as a joint candidate of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, Green Party and Liberal Democrats (FDP) after his predecessor Christian Wulff resigned amidst allegations of corruption. Many had hoped that Gauck – who still enjoys support from all major parties in the Bundestag except DIE LINKE (successor to the East German communist party) – would run for a second term, thus sparing parties the need to find a new candidate so closely before the next general election due to be held in October 2017. Avoiding a signalling effect for potential post-election coalitions, together with parties’ desire to have their candidate elected by absolute majority in the first or second round (rather than by relative majority in the third and last round of voting) complicates the situation and creates headaches for all party leaders – not only for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German Federal Convention

The German Federal Convention 2012 meeting in the Reichstag building, Berlin | © bundespraesident.de

Since 2013, Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) hold a 71% majority in the Bundestag and form a grand coalition. Even though the Federal Convention – the electoral college convened for electing the German president – consists not only of members of the Bundestag but also the same number of delegates from state parliaments, both parties would have no problems to elect a joint candidate. Nevertheless, neither CDU/CSU nor SPD see this as an ideal option. With the exception of Joachim Gauck, first nominated by SPD and Greens in 2010, both parties have not nominated a joint candidate so far (rather, either party occasionally supported the re-election of the other’s incumbent). This time, too, both parties would most likely be happiest with a candidate clearly affiliated with or at least nominated only by them (not excluding support from a minor party). Nevertheless, the seat distribution the Federal Convention (see projection below) leaves little room for manoeuvre if parties want to see their candidate elected in the first two rounds. Neither CDU/CSU+FPD nor SPD+GREENS, who previously held majorities in the Federal Conventions and subsequently saw their candidates elected, hold a majority. Even a left-wing alliance of SPD, GREENS, DIE LINKE and the SSW (Danish Minority) would fall two votes short of an absolute majority.

German parties are generally cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future coalitions on the federal level. Thus, a cooperation of the SPD with far-left party DIE LINKE is unlikely because the SPD leadership has so far categorically denied federal-level coalition potential (despite cooperating with DIE LINKE on state level) – not only could it deter SPD voters, but the CDU/CSU would also likely try to use this pairing for their advantage in the electoral campaign. Similarly, the liberal FDP – although having been in coalitions with the SPD in the past – will likely try to avoid supporting a left-wing candidacy as it hopes to re-enter the Bundestag in 2017 by taking away voters from the right-wing/populist Alternative for Germany. Last, the often-floated option of cooperation between CDU/CSU and Greens is out of the question for similar reasons. Overall, a compromise candidate elected by CDU/CSU+SPD thus seems most likely.

Projection_Seat distribution in the German Federal Convention 2016

1260 seats total; 631 votes required in first and second round, relative majority in third and final round; for more information see http://www.wahlrecht.de/lexikon/bundesversammlung.html

Analysts have highlighted over the last months that parties, particularly the CDU/CSU, would like to see a ‘professional politician’ in the presidential office – although Joachim Gauck has not opposed the government in a major way, some MPs have criticised him for contradicting government positions and even went so far as to investigate means to ‘muzzle’ the president. The CDU/CSU also still lament the resignation of Horst Köhler in 2010 following public criticism of his statements regarding German military deployment which was put down party due to him not having a sufficiently think skin to withstand conflicts of this kind. Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) has been mentioned most consistently (even before Gauck’s announcement) as a potential candidate. Despite having been the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor in 2009 and serving as deputy party chairman, he is seen as a relatively party-neutral choice – the fact that he is by far the most popular German politican (71% approval) adds to his suitability. Interestingly, the second most popular politician, veteran politician and finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), is also frequently named as a potential candidate. Nevertheless, his hard line on Greek state debt makes him less presentable on an international level. Also, Schäuble is already 73 years old would thus also likely be unavailable for a second term in office. Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) has a number of supporters across the political spectrum, yet is likely more keen to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor than become Germany’s first female president. Last, some social democrats have suggested social science professor Jutta Allmendinger (SPD member), director of the prestigious Berlin Social Science Centre, as a candidate. Nevertheless, the SPD previously failed to see a similar candidate elected on two occasions. On suggestion of then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the SPD nominated professor Gesine Schwan, president of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt (Oder), for president in 2005 and 2009. Nevertheless, she failed to win and was involved in a number of controversies resulting in several SPD and Green electors refusing to cast their vote for her.

Until now, only the Free Voters – represented only in the state parliament of Bavaria and projected to send a mere 10 electors to Berlin next February – have officially nominated a candidate: Alexander Hold, a judge who gained national prominence by appearing in court room shows on German private TV station SAT 1, currently serving a local councillor and party faction leader for the Free Voters in the town of Kempten. There is little chance that Hold will gain more than the 10 votes of his party colleagues, but the nomination has already produced some headlines which might benefit the party. It would not be the first time that a party nominates a candidate know for their work on TV – in 2009 DIE LINKE nominated actor Peter Sodann as their candidate for president (he received 91 votes – two more than the total number of DIE LINKE delegates – in the first and only round of elections).

The race for president thus still remains open. In contrast to Estonia – where political leaders find themselves in a similar situation – however, there is still sufficient time for parties to find a candidate. On the other hand, a timely decision could mitigate the election’s signalling effect for the next Bundestag election and give parties more time to focus on their campaign. It is without question that all of them do not want to live with a headache for too long.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

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[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

Map_of_EU_presidents-monarchs-xmas-ny

Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

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A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
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Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.