German president resigns

German President Horst Köhler has resigned in the wake of controversial comments he made upon returning from a trip to Afghanistan. Via Spiegel:

In an interview with a German radio reporter who accompanied him on the trip, he seemed to justify his country’s military missions abroad with the need to protect economic interests.

“A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that … military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests — for example when it comes to trade routes, for example when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes,” Köhler said.

It sounded as though Köhler was justifying wars for the sake of economic interests, in the context of the Afghan mission which is highly controversial in Germany and throughout Europe.

Regarding the resignation:

In his statement on Monday, Köhler said: “My comments about foreign missions by the Bundeswehr on May 22 this year met with heavy criticism. I regret that my comments led to misunderstandings in a question so important and difficult for our nation. But the criticism has gone as far as to accuse me of supporting Bundeswehr missions that are not covered by the constitution. This criticism is devoid of any justification. It lacks the necessary respect for my office.”

So, today’s questions are: How often in the past have presidents in parliamentary systems (where they are mostly ceremonial) resigned due to controversy? How often do they even say things that could stir up controversy?

So now the Federal Assembly (Germany’s electoral college, made up of parliamentary and state delegates) will have to elect a successor.

(Hat tip to Bancki, in the thread on Köhler’s reelection a year ago.)

15 thoughts on “German president resigns

  1. In terms of otherwise ceremonial presidents, the 1976 resignation of President Ó Dálaigh in Ireland springs immediately to mind.

  2. Dr Peter Hollingworth was Australia’s 23rd Governor-General from June 2001. Following his request to resign from the office, his commission as Governor-General was revoked in May 2003. Hollingworth’s resignation followed some weeks of public controversy over his response to clerical child abuse as the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane.

    There were also questions (unjustified in my view) about whether prelates should serve as governor-general. Sir Paul Reeves, a former Anglican Primate of New Zealand, does not seem to have had any difficulties discharging the same office.

  3. Like Robert Elgie, I thought first of Irish President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, but there’s also the case of South African President John Vorster, who resigned in disgrace in 1979, in the wake of the Information Scandal a.k.a. Muldergate; at the time South Africa still had a Westminster-style parliamentary system (albeit with a whites-only franchise), under which Vorster had been head of government for twelve years before his brief eight-month stint in the country’s then-ceremonial presidency.

  4. And then there’s Italian President Giovanni Leone, whose resignation was triggered by the Lockheed scandal, just six months short before the conclusion of his seven-year presidential mandate in 1978.

  5. I should mention as well the previous Israeli president, Moshe Katsav, although if I’m not mistaken he clung on to office almost to the bitter end, before he finally resigned in disgrace three years ago.

  6. Although not a President, the Lt Governor of Quebec, Lise Thibault, was removed from office in 2007 after some creative accounting methods came to light.

    Lt Governors are the provincial equivalent of the Governor General and function as de facto Head of State. They’re appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada, who usually consults the Premier of the province in question.

    As so, Miss Thibault did not actually resign; Prime Minister Harper had to advise the GG to appoint someone else in her place before the end of her term.

  7. I guess I should mention Sir John Kerr, who resigned in 1977. He faced sustained pressure from the opposition after dismissing the Whitlam government in 1975 and growing public disquiet after some mildly embarrassing conduct at public occasions.

    Tasmania is yet another example of a viceregal resignation due to public disquiet over the governor=s conduct, which led to Richard Butler’s resignation in 2004,

  8. Ironically, in Australia, those Governors-General who were former politicians – Sir William McKell, Sir Paul Hasluck, Sir Bill Hayden – (a) were controversial when appointed, but (b) all were generally acknowledged to have performed well in office. Granted, none of them had to deal with a 1975-style crisis.

    This record has been interpreted by Australian republicans as evidence that a republic with an ex-politician appointed as President by Parliament would work fine, and by Australian monarchists as evidence that ex-politicians acting in the position of Head of State [*] will be civilised if they are viewed (by themselves and the nation) as the Crown’s representative but will start calling out the tanks to bombard Parliament if they are given the title “President.”

    The late Padraig P McGuinness (iconoclastic libertarian columnist who worked as both a lobbyist for Moscow’s Narodny Bank and as editor of the Financial Review, Australia’s answer to the WSJ) used to argue that a former politician (Paddy named the late Labor Senator John Button) would have done much better than Sir John Kerr did in November 1975, because a former politician would have had better instincts as to when the political players were bluffing.
    [*] I use this careful formulation because, in the present state of the Australian republic debate, calling the Governor-General “Australia’s Head of State” can be a linguistic minefield akin to describing Taiwan as part of China. Basically (and quite counter-intuitively), the majority of monarchists argue that the Queen is not Australia’s Head of State (she’s just the person who hires, fires, and is represented by the Head of State). This may sound like high treason, but their motive is tactical: “We don’t need a President to have an Australian Head of State of State because the Governor-General is already an Australian who’s our Head of State.”

  9. MSS, the answer seems to be ‘quite often’)

    Tom, I say the correct answer (which pleases neither side) is that the Australian head of state is Elizabeth II for some purposes and the governor-general for some purposes.

  10. It appears that the German electoral college has at last (one month exactly) chosen a new President to replace Herr Kohler. The result is seen as a slap in the face for Chancellor Merkel because her nominee – former Lower Saxon premier Christian Wulff – was denied an absolute majority on the first few ballots, and had to go to a third ballot, due to a revolt within the governing coalition.

    I have occasionally toyed with the idea of a ceremonial president being chosen by a modified form of lottery voting. Not Prof Akhil Amar’s original model [PDF] (where you would randomly draw 1 ballot out of the 1200+ cast by the federal electors, and declare elected[*] whichever candidate has been voted for[*] on that lucky ballot). Rather, you would randomly draw out (say) two-thirds of the ballots, count only those (by majority), and ceremoniously burn the others (Vatican conclave-style).

    This way, a government would have a better chance of getting its candidate elected, but not an absolute guarantee (unless it had over two-thirds of the seats). At the same time, rather than a perpetual, non-reducing super-majority requirement (as was proposed for Australia in 1998-99), there would be a clear winner one way or the other. Opposition MPs would lack any power to indefinitely veto the head of government’s nominee, but would gain a (proportionate) chance to elect their own favourite.

    If used in Australia, one could stipulate that all the federal MPs are electors ex officio, while a number of State and Territory MPs are chosen – again by lot – equal to each S/T’s total of Senators and Representatives. Or simply jump straight to “All federal, State and Territory MPs cast a ballot: select 100 MHRs’ ballots by lot, together with 51 Senators’ ballots, and (eg) 41 of the 134 NSW State parliamentarians’ ballots…” (since NSW has 51 MHRs and 12 Senators, total 61) – ie, preserve the proportionate balance among House, Senate and S/T legislatures while selecting randomly the individual ballots within each category.
    [*] Compound past adjectival verbs sound much better in German…

  11. And I note the irony that the current Premier of Lower Saxony is named “David McAllister”. Scottish father, German mum. I guess he’d be able to pronounce the “ch” guttural sound properly.

    Reminds me of seeing media reports on the US and Mexican Presidents’ first meeting, and thinking: Hmmm, just ten ago, if I’d heard a newsreader saying “Mr Fox, the Mexican President, and Mr Obama, the US President”, I’d have thought “Dumb journalists, they’ve mixed the two countries’ up…”

  12. In the bad old days (1999) when the Australian constitutional convention was tearing itself apart between popular election and parliamentary appointment, the German model was put forward as ‘proving’ the appointment model superior because it keeps the grubbiness of party competition out of naming the president. Evidently no-ne told Chancellor Merkel or a majority of the electoral college.

    I would go beyond Tom’s model for Australia. I would have a ceremonial president named by a college where the electors were citizens elected by lot. MPs would be excluded. The chief justice could preside. The voting would be STV so there would be no need for reducing majorities.

  13. Indeed. I think what Alan and I are both aiming for is a system that can “choose” a head of state with some democratic legitimacy, without the cost, expense and party-politicization of a direct popular election (across a continental land-mass, too, unlike Ireland or Iceland) for a mainly ceremonial position. “Choose” extends to avoiding protracted deadlocks as could occur if the usual safeguard against unilateral Prime Ministerial appointment – a super-majority in Parliament – were adopted. A random sample of MPs or voters would be representative enough to make the HoS more than “the PM’s boy/ girl” but not enough for her/him to make deGaullian claims to “speak for the ineluctable essence of the nation.”

  14. I think there are stronger arguments for a college of citizens elected by lot than for a college of MPs elected by lot. For some reason, Australian political culture is somewhat dismissive of constitutional issues, to the extent that (1) Howard could close down constitutional arguments by talking about ‘constitutional niceties’ and (2) everyone seems to think NSW should have an early election despite the clear constitutional prohibition on early elections.

    If a random MP assembly proved to have a government majority (because of a weighted random system or otherwise) it would replicate the 1999 model. If it had an opposition majority it would replicate the German problem.

    A random citizens assembly would have the advantages Tom has outlined without the weaknesses that I suggest. The constitutional convention produced the lovely phrase ‘gentle tension’ to describe the desired relationship between a parliamentary president and a parliamentary prime minister.

  15. A system similar to that used in Germany or India would probably work well in Canada where the relationship between federal and provincial parties is often weak. (Most B.C. Liberals are closer to the federal Conservative party, for example.)

    No federal party (or coalition of parties) could count on all of its provincial namesakes to support its candidate. So picking a candidate with broad appeal would be the key.

    By the way, Tom, I was interested in your comments on the Australian Governor-General as head of state. The Canadian GG was recently chastised by the prime minister for referring to herself as Canada’s head of state. And monarchists here simply insist that the Queen is Canadian, therefore, we already have a Canadian head of state. At least it’s a more straightfoward argument.

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