The German presidential election

Last week in Germany, everywhere we went in any city we were seldom far from a TV facing the sidewalk and tuned to a World Cup match. So it is a good thing that Wednesday was an idle day in the World Cup, allowing all of Germany to be tuned in to its presidential election.

Or maybe not…

There was no sign of this major event in the life of a democracy, aside from some special news coverage on TV–but not being played in the bars and restaurants. Of course, the reason for the far-from World Cup-like attention is that this was not a popular election. Germany’s president is chosen by a Federal Assembly consisting of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of delegates from the states.

While there was a good deal of drama for those who were tuned in, the outcome was never in doubt, given the parties’ control over the delegates. That the coalition’s choice would prevail was a given because of the rule that stipulates that if no majority is produced in the first two ballots of the Assembly, a plurality suffices in the third round. However, given the nominal majority held by the Christian Democrat-Liberal governing coalition, that it went to the third ballot means that the government’s own delegates took the opportunity to give the coalition a bit of a bloody nose. In other words, the party control is not absolute, thanks in part to the secret ballot used in the Assembly. In the first two ballots, some members of the coalition’s delegation refused to vote for their candidate, Christian Wulff.

Had the election been by popular vote, the candidate of the Social Democrats and Greens might well have won. Joachim Gauck was a leader of the anti-communist opposition prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. He evidently received some votes, especially in the first round, of Assembly members from within the governing parties’ delegation. He undoubtedly would have received many more votes from actual voters who favored these parties at the last general election if there had been a popular presidential election.

Then again, had the vote been popular, it is unlikely that Wulff would have been the conservative-liberal candidate. A career “insider” with little national profile, he is the sort of candidate parties often nominate to top positions in parliamentary democracies, but who are less likely to be selected when elections for an executive position are direct.

The opposition, on the other hand, essentially treated the contest as a de-facto popular vote. And it might have worked, but it would have required the Left party delegates to withdraw their own candidate. Given that the Left party is made up in part of the remnants of the old Communists against whom Gauk mobilized during the 1980s, that was never a realistic option. By nominating Gauck, however, the SPD and Greens succeeded in sending a strong signal to the nation of how unreconstructed the Left Party is. It would not join a broad left coalition to elect a popular “outsider” against the candidate of an unpopular government, even for the mostly ceremonial post of Germany’s presidency. Presumably, a large chunk of Left voters would have gone for Gauck in a popular runoff. In that sense, the SPD and Greens pulled off a big symbolic victory against their Left rivals even if they lost the election itself.

The whole contest also suggests that the electoral process for Germany’s head of state perhaps now has failed to maintain the delicate balance for which it was designed: being neither a simple ratification of the sitting government’s candidate nor an open popularity contest. This is a theme that I see some members of the F&V community have already begun discussing at an earlier thread.

4 thoughts on “The German presidential election

  1. Lots of countries have ceremonial, non-elected Presidents presiding over parliamentary systems. How do India and Italy do it? Didn’t this question scupper the republican project in Australia?

    You could remove the Bundestag from the process entirely and have the President elected by the Bundesrat. That would still avoid direct election, while increasing the possibility of a President not chosen by the governing coalition.

  2. Sorry, I completely missed the other thread. I like the “Assembly of Random Citizens” idea, but wonder if it would fit well with German political culture.

  3. The Bundesrat is not involved. The Assembly consists of all members of the Bundestag and an equal number of state delegates, separate from the government appointees that vote in the Bundesrat (which is also much smaller than the Bundestag).

    (On my recent trip to Germany I learned something I had overlooked previously: the Bundesrat has no permanent membership. State governments can send experts on specific issues, depending on what is being voted on.)

    The Indian and Italian electoral colleges are broadly similar to Germany’s, but I am hazy on the details.

  4. I suspected that, but corrected myself into an error when I thought the federal portion of the federal assembly would be redundant, as the Bundesrat already represents the states. But know I realize that opposition parties in the state assemblies might be represented in the federal assembly but not the Bundesrat.

    The larger point remains, they could just have the states select the President and leave the Bundestag out of the process completely.

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