Tag Archives: Germany

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.

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.

Germany – A muzzle for the president? President Gauck and the limits of freedom of speech(es)

The election of Joachim Gauck’s election as Germany’s 11th Federal President was a novelty in many respects. Gauck was not only the first president from the former German Democratic Republic, but also the first non-partisan to ascend to the Germany’s highest office. Gauck himself promised to be ‘an uncomfortable president’ who would voice his opinion more often even if it contradicted the policies of the government or went counter to prevailing public opinion. His remarks towards the far-right were welcomed by public and politicians alike. Yet Gauck’s calls for the need for greater German military involvement abroad and criticism of the possibility of a leftist politician being elected minister-president of Thuringia have been met with opposition. Now coalition politicians are reportedly seeking ways to ‘muzzle’ the ‘uncomfortable president’.

Joachim Gauck during his speech after being elected president | photo via bundespraesident.de | © Jesco Denzel / Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung

The powers of the German presidency are generally very limited and the role of its incumbents is thus largely ceremonial with very little potential for independent political action. One of the few opportunities for German presidents to influence politics are their speeches and interviews and most office-holders to date have through these been able to install themselves as a ‘moral compass’ in the public debate. Due to his work as a Lutheran pastor, opposition activist and Federal Commissioner for dealing with the records of the Stasi (the secret police of the German Democratic Republic) during the 90s as well as his oratory skills incumbent president Joachim Gauck had been established as a notable public figure even before his election and received overwhelming public support for his candidacies (his first one was unsuccessful) for the country’s highest office. Since his inauguration in March 2012, several of Gauck’s speeches have been met with acclaim (also internationally, e.g. his speech on European integration), just like his clear stance against the extremist far-right. In the latter case, the German Constitutional Court even confirmed that Gauck was allowed to label members and followers of the extremist far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) ‘nutcases’ and had the right to free expression as long as he does not ‘take sides in an arbitrary manner’.

Despite Gauck’s general popularity, German politicians have recently criticised Gauck for overstepping his constitutionally prescribed role. In the first instance, this was due to his speech at the Munich Security Conference in January this year in which he called for greater German military engagement abroad. The German president does not even possess ceremonial powers with regard to the military or foreign policy and elites were thus unhappy with his remarks. The government was also not pleased with Gauck’s interpellations in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis (among others, Gauck accussed Russian president Vladimir Putin of breaking international law) and had to employ great diplomatic effort to keep open a channel of communication with the Russian leadership. It should be mentioned Gauck’s remarks were also unusual for other reasons. The German public is not only traditionally wary having their troops deployed abroad, but Gauck’s pre-predecessor Horst Köhler resigned after he felt unduly criticised for declaring that German military deployments abroad (which are usually labelled as ‘humanitarian’ in the German discourse) also served to secure the country’s economic interests.

President Gauck was faced with second wave of criticism when he told journalists that he would be ‘uncomfortable’ with seeing leftist politician Bodo Ramelow’s being elected as minister-president of the German state of Thuringia. While his remarks were generally less surprising, they too meant means that Gauck entered (politically) uncharted waters. Ramelow is local leader of ‘Die LINKE’ (“The Left”) a successor party to the United Socialist Party (SED) – the GDR’s party of power. While ‘Die LINKE’ has participated in a number of coalition governments in the East German states (and even tolerated a Social Democrat-Green minority government in the West), it has never nominated the minister-president. Given Gauck’s role in the GDR opposition movement – among others he was co-founder of the ‘New Forum’ opposition movement – and his work as Federal Commissioner for dealing with records of the Stasi (the GDR’s secret police) 1990-2000, his criticism of LINKE-led government is understandable. Nevertheless, it is the first time in German post-unification (potentially even post-war) history that a president has taken a public stance on the political situation in one of the 16 German states.

It is thus not a coincidence that it was revealed last week that Peter Gauweiler, a prominent member of parliament for the Christian Social Union (CSU; currently in government), commissioned the parliamentary research service to draft a legal opinion on ‘the competence of the president to make foreign policy statements’ (as Gauweiler’s CSU is fiercely opposed to ‘Die LINKE’, the focus on foreign policy alone is not surprising). The paper, which was leaked to a number of newspapers, clearly states that the president was not allowed to conduct an ‘alternative foreign policy’ and can be required to closely coordinate the content of public statements. While this describes the existing political practice (the general content of speeches is coordinated with the respective government ministries and the Chancellor’s office), the paper seems to open the possibility for a word-by-word coordination which would significantly reduce the presidents ability to influence political and public debates. Nevertheless, the opinion also tends towards rejecting a requirement for countersignature for speeches. While the vast majority of presidential decisions and actions is already subject to countersignature, the currently dominant opinion in legal scholarship argues against it.

It is unlikely that the government of parliamentary majority will initiate any steps towards formally restricting Gauck’s ability to make public statements. Nevertheless, the debate and the fact that the criticism has shifted from the fringes of the political spectrum (radical right and radical left) to mainstream parties should be food for thought for Gauck. While it is unclear whether he wants to seek re-election once his term ends in 2017 (he will be 77 years old by then), he might need be a more ‘comfortable’ president in any case to make sure that his words do not fall on deaf ears among those who can turn them into actions.

Austria & Germany – The pocket-veto power of Federal Presidents

The majority of European presidents (as well as presidents in most other countries around the world) possess at least some role in the legislative process. Typically, this is the right to veto legislation, i.e. send bills back to parliament (usually with comments/sometimes with proposed amendments) where they are then discussed again. Two prominent exceptions are Austria and Germany where presidents do not formally have the right to refuse their signature.[1] Nevertheless, the interpretation of the respective constitutional stipulations is not clear and it can be argued that they possess a form of pocket veto.

Austrian president Heinz Fischer is the only Austrian president to date who has refused to sign a bill despite having no specific veto power |photo via wikimedia commons

At first glance, the stipulations of the Austrian and German constitutions about the final stages of the legislative process appear relatively simple and are almost identical – once a law has been passed it is signed and promulgated by the president (see table below) and the constitution do not foresee a presidential right to refuse the signature. Constitutional scholars in both countries have however argued that presidents may still refuse their signature under certain conditions, although the debate here has not reached a definite conclusion.

Austrian Constitution – Art 47 (1) The adoption of federal laws in accordance with the constitution is authenticated by the signature of the Federal President.
German Basic Law – Art 82 (1) Laws enacted in accordance with the provisions of this Basic Law shall, after countersignature, be certified by the Federal President and promulgated in the Federal Law Gazette.

The main point of contention is hereby the fact that both constitutions do not simply stipulate that presidents sign adopted laws but that they sign laws enacted/adopted in accordance with the respective constitution. For most scholars it is clear that presidents should be allowed to refuse signature to bills (or might pursuant to their oath of office to protect the constitution even have the duty to do so) if there were any procedural errors in any part of the legislative process. This could for instance be that the bill was not passed with the required majority or that the draft did not go through all three readings (correcting such procedural errors is interestingly also a not infrequent reason for ‘ordinary’ presidential vetoes in other European countries).

A significant minority of experts however argues that presidents do not only have the right to check the violation of procedural rules before they sign the bill (and refuse signature if they find any) and assert that the term ‘in accordance with the constitution’ needs to be interpreted more widely. Presidents should therefore also be allowed to review the constitutionality of bills with regard to further stipulations and only sign the bill if there are no ‘obvious’ violations (i.e. presidents and their administration should still not perform an in-depth legal analysis). In Germany, this group of scholars is further divided between a larger group that argues that the president should only check the bill for violations of the ‘fundamental rights‘ and a smaller group supporting an all-encompassing review power. Nonetheless, all scholars agree that presidents cannot refuse to sign bills for political reasons or non-legal objections to the content of legislation.

As there are no provisions that would allow presidents to return the bill to parliament (and for parliament to pass the bill again without introducing it again as a new draft), even the dominant ‘procedural’ interpretation of the respective stipulations can be seen as a form of pocket veto. From 1949 until now, presidents in both countries have only extremely rarely tried to exploit these constitutional ambiguities. German presidents have refused their signature on 6 occasions so far [2] and there has only been one case in Austria. In all cases, the refusal to sign the bills was clearly triggered by very obvious procedural errors or violations of basic constitutional principles. Nevertheless, the practical relevance should not be underestimated.

Although German presidents have only refused their signature under a bill once every ten years, the possibility of the president’s refusal to sign a bill accompanies most debates about controversial legislation, e.g. the recent passage of new regulations on the remuneration of members of the Bundestag. Even by delaying the signature under a bill and speculating about a pocket veto, presidents might able to extract concessions on related legislation in the future. In Austria, incumbent president Heinz Fischer was the first refusing to sign a bill, meaning that even after 60 years of constitutional practice in which presidents routinely played a subordinate role to the government president are able to curb out new powers.  Furthermore, similar to Germany the possibility of a pocket veto has also become part of Austrian debates about legislation.

For now, it is unlikely that parliaments or governments in either country will approach constitutional courts to have presidents’ compentencies clarified as it is possible that the court will provide unfavourable interpretation of the constitution and extend presidential powers. Nevertheless, at the same time the fact that a decision could also be taken in parliaments’ or governments’ favour should ensure that presidents do not use their power more frequently.

_______________________________________________
[1] The Slovenian president also has no veto power, yet regulations differ from the Austrian and German examples.
[2] Tavits, Margit. 2008. Presidents and Prime Ministers. Do direct elections matter? Oxford: OPU. p 81.

Two grand coalitions formed – Austria and Germany

During the past week, Conservatives and Social Democrats in both Austria and Germany finally agreed on the formation on so-called ‘grand coalitions’. While a coalition of the two largest parties has been nothing new for Austria (since WWII both parties have only ever not been in a coalition between 1966-1986 and 2000-2006), in Germany it is only the third pairing of this kind since 1949 and the second since German unification in 1990. Nevertheless, the government formation process turned out to be lengthy not only in Germany, but also in Austria.

Seat distribution in the Austrian National Council and German Bundestag_presidential-power.com

In Austria, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) have been the senior partner in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) coalition since 2007. Both parties suffered losses in the elections and despite the announcement of the ÖVP to also hold talks with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ; a coalition of ÖVP and FPÖ had resulted in international outrage in 1999/2000) a continuation of the grand coalition was the only practicable option. The main difficulties in the negotiations were not only policy differences between parties but also the budgetary deficit and the SPÖ’s insistence on a leading role (despite having won only 5 more seats than the ÖVP). In early December, ÖVP even appealed to President Heinz Fischer to ease coalition talks (a surprising step given the largely ceremonial role of the Austrian president and the fact that Fischer himself is a SPÖ member).

In Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian and Social Union (CSU), fell only four seats short of an absolute majority and it was thus clear that they would be part of the next coalition. After their previous junior coalition partner, the (economically & socially) liberal Free Democrats (FDP) failed to enter parliament, CDU/CSU held talks with both the Social Democrats (SPD; second largest party in parliament) and the Greens, yet eventually opted for coalition talks with the SPD. Here, too, the insistence of the CDU/CSU to impose their policy proved to be a hindrance, although the most controversial topic turned out to the – overall less significant – introduction of tolls on German motorways that would only apply to foreigners (a measure proposed by CSU chairman Seehofer). Eventually, the SPD moved to ask its 475,000 members for approval of the coalition treaty (the threat of which had allowed them pursue a two-level bargaining strategy and arguably push through more of their demands) which further lengthened the process. As 76% of voting members (70% turnout) voted for the coalition, the SPD emerges from the risky manoeuvre with new strength.

duration of government formation process_Austria_Germany
Source: Diermeier, D., P. Van Roozendaal.(1998) “The duration of cabinet formation processes in western multi-party democracies.” British Journal of Political Science 28.4: 609-626; own additions

In effect, coalition talks in both countries lasted much longer than the average of years past. In Germany, the formation took almost twice as long as the average duration of post-election government formations (and still 21 days longer than the formation of the last grand coalition in 2005). In Austria, the formation process only lasted a good three weeks longer than the post-WWII average (although it needs to be noted that the average in the last 20 years has been 82 days, so that the formation of the new government appears to have been accomplished slightly faster than this more recent average).

As shown below, the final distribution of ministries largely confirmed Gamson’s Law (the nominal under-representation of the SPÖ and CDU is balanced by the fact that their candidate becomes chancellor; the over-representation of the CSU as the smallest party also belongs to the known exceptions to the law). 

government party seat share and portfolio allocation

In Austria, the nomination of 27 year-old Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) as foreign minister came as a surprise to many (the ministry had previously been headed by ÖVP chairman and deputy chancellor Spindelegger who became finance minister). The fact that there will be no minister exclusively responsible for science and research has also prompted some discussion among and resistance from academics. In Germany, most speculations about ministerial nominees proved true (although parties waited with the official announcement until the SPD members’ vote on the coalition treaty had passed), the only real surprise being the nomination of the potential Merkel successors Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) as minister of defense. For a full list of cabinet members see below:

Austria
Chancellor: Werner Faymann (SPÖ, male, 53)
Deputy Chancellor/Finance: Michael Spindelegger (ÖVP, male, 53)
Family & Youth: Sophie Karmasin (ÖVP, female, 46)
Justice: Wolfgang Brandstetter (ÖVP, male, 56)
Foreign Affairs & Integration: Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP, male, 27)
Agriculture: Andrä Rupprechter (ÖVP, male, 49)
Economy & Science: Reinhold Mitterlehner (ÖVP, male, 58)
Interior: Johanna Mikl-Leitner (ÖVP, female, 49)
Social Affairs: Rudolf Hundstorfer (SPÖ, male, 63)
Education & Women: Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek (SPÖ, female, 52)
Infrastructure: Doris Bures (SPÖ, female, 51)
Defence: Gerald Klug (SPÖ, male, 45)
Health: Alois Stöger (SPÖ, male, 53)
Special tasks/Head of the Chancellor’s Office: Josef Ostermayer (SPÖ, male, 52)

Germany
Chancellor: Angela Merkel (CDU, female, 59)
Deputy Chancellor/Economy & Energy: Sigmar Gabriel (SPD, male, 54)
Foreign Affairs: Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD, male, 57)
Finance: Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU, male, 71)
Interior: Thomas de Maizere (CDU, male, 59)
Defence: Ursula von der Leyen (CDU, female, 55)
Labour: Andrea Nahles (SPD, female, 43)
Health: Herrman Gröhe (CDU, male, 52)
Justice & Consumer Protection: Heiko Maas (SPD, male, 47)
Family, Youth & Pensioners: Manuela Schwesig (SPD, female, 39)
Science & Research: Johanna Wanka (CDU, female, 62)
Environment: Barbara Hendricks (SPD, female, 61)
Infrastructure & Internet: Alexander Dobrindt (CSU, male, 43)
Foreign Aid: Gerd Müller (CSU, male, 58)
Agriculture: Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU, male, 56)
Special tasks/Head of the Chancellor’s Office: Peter Altmeier (CDU, male, 55)

Germany – Ex-president Wulff goes on trial

On 17 February 2012, Christian Wulff announced his resignation as Germany’s 10th federal president. This unusual step had been preceded not only by a request of the prosecution of Hannover to lift Wulff’s immunity to be able to launch an investigation into the claims of corruption. It also followed almost two months of public discussion about the president’s private finances, the nature of his private gains in various political deals while being minister-president of Lower Saxony, and his attitude towards the press. This article offers a brief overview of the events leading to and following Wulff’s resignation and explains the subject and potential outcomes of the trial as well as its significance.

From private loan to state affair
Following revelations in 2009 that Christian Wulff (then still minister-president of Lower Saxony) and his wife had received free upgrades on flights to visit their friends Egon and Edith Geerkens in Florida (public officials must not accept gifts above the value of €10), the opposition asked Wulff whether he maintained business relations with Mr Geerkens. While Wulff denied the existence of such relations, the German tabloid BILD revealed in December 2011 (Wulff had then already been president for 18 months) that Wulff and his second wife had received a private loan of €500,000 from Geerkens to buy a house. His lawyers first argued that Wulff had not lied to the state parliament as the loan had come from Egon Geerken’s wife Edith. However, as soon emerged Edith Geerkens did not dispose of sufficient financial resources and had agreed on a separation of property within the marriage, so that the loan had actually been granted by her husband. Only a few days after facing questioning in parliament, Wulff furthermore arranged a new loan with a private bank seen by many observers as evidence that Wulff wanted to safeguard himself against further allegations.

In early January 2012 newspapers then revealed that president Wulff left an agitated message on the voicemail of the editor-in-chief of BILD before the scandal broke and threatened with consequences. Not having issued a public statement on the affair yet, Wulff appeared on public television and promised to provide answers to any open questions. Nevertheless, in the following weeks newspapers continued to uncover several additional cases in which Wulff allegedly received benefits in exchange for political favours, with the majority dating back to Wulff’s time as minister-president of Lower Saxony. A major part in this were holidays Wulff and his family had spent on invitation of and financed by influential German businessmen (incidentally, Wulff’s spokesperson was dismissed for accepting holidays during the course of the affair). At the same time, a number of public prosecutors in German federal states started tentative investigations yet most were dropped after a few weeks. Eventually, the prosecution of Hannover (the state capital of Lower Saxony) sent a request to the speaker of the German Bundestag to lift the president’s immunity – the basis being that film financier David Groenewold paid for Wulff’s holiday on several occasions.

Charges, trial, and potential outcomes
The prosecution continued to focus mainly on Wulff’s holidays yet also investigated other allegations. In early 2013, the prosecution then charged his former spokesperson Olaf Glaeseker with corruption and began to prepare similar charges against the former president and Groenewold. Nevertheless, already in March 2013 the prosecution offered Wullf to cease the investigation in exchange for paying a €20,000 fine (a relatively common procedure if the sum in dispute is below a certain threshold). Wulff rejected the offer and the prosecution applied for opening a trial on charges of corruption against Wulff and Groenewold in April 2013. While the court agreed to open the trial, it only did so under charges of ‘unlawful acceptance of benefits’ and not the more serious charges of corruption. A verdict can be expected for April 2014.

The concrete cases for which Wulff and Groenewold are tried might appear trivial and even far-fetched to outside observers – Wulff is accused of accepting €510 for a night at a hotel (including costs for childcare during his stay), €209 for a dinner, and €3,209 for a trip to the Oktoberfest in Munich (including costs for 4-5 people travelling with Wulff and his wife) from Groenewold. In exchange, Wulff is thought to have asked others to help with the promotion of one of Groenewold’s films and appears to have been instrumental in securing state funding for a production of Groenewolds company a few years earlier. All this happened before Wulff became president. Nevertheless, the trial has great significance for several reasons. First, close personal relationships between politicians and businesspeople (including holidays spent together) are far from unusual. The trial will thus help to shed light on such networks and help to define which behaviour is still considered legal and which is not. Second, the trial has already raised questions about the tightening of anti-corruption legislation in Germany. Third, it is the first time in German history that a former or current head of state had to answer charges. Due to its ceremonial character, the German presidency depends on officeholders’ integrity and ability to act as a ‘moral authority’. Irrespective of its outcome, the trial will thus affect the selection of candidates for office in the future.

Should Wulff be found guilty, the sentence is likely entail at least a hefty fine, theoretically even a jail sentence of up to three years. However, due to the relatively small sum in question and because Wulff has no previous convictions the latter seems unlikely (although Wulff might be placed on probation for a limited amount of time). Due to the lack of precedents, it is not yet clear in how far the court will take Wulff’s high political position at the time into consideration. Nevertheless, as a former lawyer Wulff will be considered to possess an ‘increased sense of justice’ and might thus receive a higher sentence than Groenewold.

The role of presidents in government formation – Austria and Germany

by Philipp Köker

In the last month both Germany and Austria elected new federal parliaments; however, in neither case did the outcome predicate a particular coalition between political parties. In Germany, the failure of the (economically and socially) liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) to enter parliament has meant that the clear election winners – Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, CSU – are left without their previous coalition partner. In Austria, Social Democrats and the People’s Party (ÖVP) received just enough votes to continue the ‘grand coalition’. Nevertheless, the ÖVP’s announcement to also conduct coalition talks with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) and eurosceptic ‘Team Stronach’ has called its continuation – at least temporarily – into question.

Party leaders in both countries are still in the phase of exploratory talks, but Austrian president Heinz Fischer (SPÖ) and his German counterpart Joachim Gauck (non-partisan) have already met with party leaders to discuss the election results and hear about progress in forming a new government. This post will provide a brief comparison of the presidents’ powers in government formation after elections and assess the likeliness of presidential interference.

Formal powers

The powers of the Austrian president in the area of government formation are far-reaching and extend beyond those in other semi-presidential democracies. The constitution stipulates that the president appoints the Chancellor and on the Chancellor’s proposal other members of government. Due to Austria’s ‘negative parliamentarianism’ there is no vote of investiture for but the Chancellor and cabinet members are sworn into office by the president and then have to ‘present themselves’ to parliament within seven days.

In comparison, the German president’s formal powers are much more limited. The president proposes a candidate for Chancellor to parliament who then has to be elected by an absolute majority. If the president’s candidate is unable to garner support from a majority of deputies, it is parliament’s turn to propose and elect another candidate within the next fourteen days. Even if parliament fails to elect a new Chancellor in this time period, there is a final vote in which a candidate is elected by relative majority. Only then has the German president some leeway in decision-making as s/he can decide whether to appoint a candidate elected by relative majority (any candidate by absolute majority has to be appointed) or dissolve parliament.

The realities of the systems

As most other parliamentary and semi-presidential constitutions, the German Basic Law and the Austrian Federal Constitutional Law do not formally restrict presidents in their choice of candidate for the head of government. Nevertheless, both presidents are limited by the political realities of the systems.

In Austria, parliament can remove the government by the ways of a no-confidence motion at any time and the president thus needs to nominate a formateur who is able to negotiate a majority coalition. While the constitution does not specify a deadline until which the president has to nominate a new Chancellor, a government without a majority would likely be incapable of governing. Except for 1999, Austrian presidents have thus always nominated the representative of the largest party in parliament (although there have been about half a dozen cases where presidents opposed particular candidates for cabinet posts) and no government has had to face a no-confidence motion right after its appointment.

In Germany, presidents have also rather waited for the end of coalition negotiations between parties to then propose the candidate for Chancellor who has a majority behind them. Yet as parliament can elect its own candidate after the rejecting the president’s choice, the nomination is less consequential. Furthermore, the stipulation of a ‘constructive’ vote of no-confidence means that parliament can only dismiss a Chancellor/government by simultaneously electing new one – leaving the president to merely formalise parties’ actions.

Potential for presidential involvement

Without wanting to speculate about the outcome of government formation in Austria and Germany, the role of presidents will likely be equally marginal. While the Austrian constitution gives the president much more leeway in decision-making, the system has developed into a parliamentary one by all but name. President Fischer might stress the international outcry caused by the inclusion of the far-right FPÖ into the government in 1999 and 2003, yet any interference beyond this will be met with resistance from parties and citizens. Due to constitutional constraints and established political practice, President Gauck will also limit his involvement in the formation of a new German government to urging parties to quickly conclude their negotiations and to overcome the differences stressed during the electoral campaign.

More on the results of the German elections and the Austrian elections on the website of The Economist.