Tag Archives: Joachim Gauck

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.

_________________________________________________
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 – 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.