Frank-Walter Steinmeier, president and Pyrrhic victor
The world was still recovering from the turbulent presidential elections in the US when Germany, another key Western power, picked its next head of state.
In an improvised and rushed ceremony this week, the leaders of the governing Christian and Social democratic parties presented current foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as their joint candidate and, indeed president-elect, as the February 2017 vote is a formality.
After all, the parties backing Steinmeier command an overwhelming majority in the federal assembly, the electoral body composed of national and state MPs.
German media and Berlin pundits were quick to see this decision as yet another defeat for chancellor Angela Merkel, bruised as she is after her recent series of political setbacks.
In turn, for the Social Democrats, the nomination of one of their own is seen as a resounding success. Priding themselves for having outmaneuvered their senior coalition partner on the presidency, many now harbor fresh hopes of a similar stunt in next year’s federal elections.
More likely, however, this will turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Steinmeier and his party. Even more so, the true benefit may go to Merkel, whether by design or default.
The choice of the next German president, however ceremonial the office itself may be, has been seen as a barometer of the political status quo and its prospects beyond next year.
Ever since current and widely popular president Joachim Gauck announced his departure, a heated debate has raged as to whether or not the two governing parties would field a common candidate, and what their eventual choice would signal regarding their coalition preferences in a post-2017 government.
Sensing the importance of this presidential succession, both parties launched a hectic search for suitable candidates. The Christian Democrats appeared rather hapless. The Social Democrats were successful in the end.
Or could it actually be the other way around?
First and foremost, the party-political composition and voting procedure of the federal assembly favored a Social Democrat-backed candidate from the outset.
Once neither a non-partisan nor a third party candidate was found, it was advisable for the Christian Democrats to make a tactical concession. Any competing nomination and fight to the end would have resulted in a substantial defeat, not least for Merkel, in the forthcoming and crucial election year.
Such infighting would also have rendered the current governing coalition dysfunctional. This is nothing Europe’s central power can afford at a time, when key and likely turbulent votes are scheduled in Italy, the Netherlands and France, when global politics is in flux with the transition to a new US administration, when Russian aggression remains unabated and unchecked, and when the Eurozone crisis could erupt again at any moment.
Worse, a government breakup over the choice of president would add massive uncertainty. Seen from this end, Merkel’s agreement on Steinmeier can be seen as the only responsible course of action, with credit going to the former, rather than the latter.
Further, snap elections would have come at the worst possible time for both governing parties. Over the last year, the refugee crisis, the rise of the far-right and a string of state elections have shaken the political landscape and the establishment. As a result, neither Christian nor Social Democrats would be able, at this stage, to form an alternative coalition.
Both are hopeful that their chances will improve in the remaining months until the elections, provided that political tensions and polarization do indeed ebb. Such a trend, however, will benefit Merkel’s conservatives more than the Social Democrats.
Be that as it may, the most likely constellation to result from the September 2017 elections is another grand coalition. Over the last weeks, the Social Democrats have been exploring a left-of-center, three-party alliance with the Left and Green parties. The Christian Democrats, in turn, are considering cooperation with the social-liberal Greens.
Not only are both options fraught with political disagreements, but it appears that neither would garner a sufficient majority, judging from polls so far. In this situation, agreeing to Steinmeier made perfect tactical sense for the Christian Democrats, as it keeps the option of a continued coalition with the Social Democrats open.
And this not least because any new grand coalition is sure to see the Christian Democrats as senior partner, with Merkel as the most likely chancellor.
More immediately, elevating Steinmeier to the presidency rids Merkel of a foreign minister that over the last months has contradicted her increasingly openly.
Disagreements have flared up over policy towards Russia, with Merkel pursuing a principled, punitive and collective Western approach, while Steinmeier has signaled readiness to accommodate Russian demands, lashing out at Nato.
A possible replacement is the outgoing president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. His strong criticism of Russian conduct in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, which he has voiced over years, would be a good fit with Merkel’s line and make German - and by implication European - policy vis-a-vis Russia much more consistent.
Just as importantly, Steinmeier’s ascent to the presidency will mark the departure of the only Social Democrat minister whom Merkel consistently and by a wide margin trailed in the popularity ratings.
Steinmeier owes this to his conciliatory persona; after all, Germans are famed consensus-seekers. Judging by his first statements as president-elect, he will work to overcome the ever more obvious divisions in German society.
One might speculate whether this focus on the domestic situation was Merkel’s condition to agree to Steinmeier’s nomination. What is clear, however, is that it will free her hand on the international stage.
Merkel can also hope for two additional effects of agreeing to a Steinmeier presidency. First, the possibility that Schulz replaces Steinmeier promises to shake up the Social Democrat leadership.
Schulz has already announced that he will only consider moving to Berlin if he is his party’s lead candidate in the upcoming federal elections. This demand, at the expense of the unlucky vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, has prompted heated debates and uncertainty in the party.
Second, the president-elect is a setback for any alliance of the Social Democrat, Green and Left parties, as the latter rejects Steinmeier’s candidacy. Merkel and her Christian Democrats can only benefit from turmoil in the Social Democrat leadership and complicated coalition options as they hit the campaign trail.
It is inconceivable that Merkel would not have weighed up these stakes before handing Steinmeier and the Social Democrats this ‘victory’, as if on a silver platter.
She has outsmarted generations of rival Christian Democrats. She now seems to have done the same with her coalition partner. The Social Democrats may be in for a bit of a rude awakening once they are done with celebrating their seeming success.
Joerg Forbrig is senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank