The Two Faces of German Politics

Christian Tuschhoff

Free University Berlin

Christian Tuschhoff is an adjunct professor of Political Science at the Free University Berlin. He specializes in topics related to international security, military and defense policy, and transatlantic relations

Chancellor Angela Merkel paid her respects to former President Christian Wulff when she said that “he invested his energy into a modern, open Germany…and documented that the strength of this country resides in its diversity.” However, by setting up procedures of selecting Wulff’s successor, Merkel indicated in the very same statement that she would decide first among the coalition parties before consulting with the opposition and exclude the Left Party. Thus, in just a few minutes Merkel had pointed to the two contradictory faces of German politics: the ultimate desire to integrate an increasingly diverse society on the one hand and partisan politics in which all parties fight for the interest of their constituents at the expense of others. This mutually reinforcing dynamic between seeking a non-partisan consensus and the practice of partisan politics also dominated the selection process of Wulff’s successor, Joachim Gauck, as well as most talk shows in Germany on the subject. This time, however, the FDP outmaneuvered Angela Merkel, the master of power brokering.

Merkel planned to nominate a candidate with an impeccable record who would also stand for her own new coalition building options after the next Bundestag elections. Her smaller partner, the FDP, already on the defense because of several lost regional elections, disastrous polls, and a quickly-shrinking party membership proved to be better able to count to 621—the number of votes needed to elect the next Federal President in the Bundesversammlung. Unable to nominate a candidate of their own they had to prevent Merkel from nominating somebody who would have pushed the FDP further to the margins. Therefore, they went on the offensive and supported Joachim Gauck, a Protestant priest and former director of the Stasi files office who had already been nominated by the SPD and the Alliance 90/Green parties. However, Gauck was anathema to Merkel, because he ran against Wulff in the last presidential election and his re-nomination would indicate that Merkel chose the wrong candidate the last time. Merkel was initially convinced she would be able to persuade the FDP leadership to support her preferred candidate.

While the FDP leadership initially agreed that Merkel should have the first right of proposal and indicated that the coalition parties should demonstrate discipline, the FDP rank and file dissented. They were prepared to risk a breakup of the governing coalition by publicly supporting the candidate nominated by the opposition parties. Therefore, Joachim Gauck had the support of a majority in the Bundesversammlung. Merkel had to accept her defeat and announce that all major parties supported Joachim Gauck. Justifications from all parties referring to the nominee as a non-partisan candidate could hardly veil that partisan power politics was the key in determining the nomination for the next federal president.

The entire nominating process shows that the distance between politics and society is still growing. Not only do many Germans desire a president who is authentic, honest, and an ethical leader, but they also seek more opportunities of direct democracy. The list of names of potential candidates was heavily biased toward Protestant officials. Businessmen, lawyers, academics, or representatives of the Catholic church were not considered and politicians were ruled out early in the process. Apparently, Germans seek more religious leadership to meet their longing for ethical politics. In addition, there is a discussion of taking decisions out of the hands of political parties by using referenda on important issues and directly electing public officials. Yet, the two faces of German politics—a desire for non-partisan ethical action and the dynamic of partisan politics—are likely to coexist for the time to come. The next president, Joachim Gauck, might be able to satisfy the aspiration for ethical leadership but he can hardly reconcile the two faces of German politics.

It has also hardly been noticed that the two faces and their mutually reinforcing dynamic make Germany more similar to the United States. Those who favor direct elections of public officials clearly push Germany’s parliamentary democracy toward a presidential one. Moreover, they push for more societal self-governance and are prepared to accept that the society will diversify even further. If these trends prevail, the distance to the United States will narrow because political values become more compatible and processes of government might assimilate.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.