Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Suddenly all eyes are on the president, not the chancellor

Bundespräsident Steinmeier
I have ways of making you talk. Source: DPA

As Germany, a country usually known for its political stability, woke up on November 20 to find itself in political crisis and limbo, Chancellor Angela Merkel got into her limousine and was driven to Bellevue Palace. To call Bellevue a palace is something of an exaggeration — it is really more of a grand Prussian villa in a forest in central Berlin. As such it is the perfect seat – austere, solemn, modest – for Germany’s head of state, the federal president. Arriving at the front door, Ms. Merkel waddled up its steps for her audience with Bellevue’s incumbent tenant: Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It is now he, more than Ms. Merkel, who will determine the course of this crisis.

Fully aware of the sudden importance of his role, Mr. Steinmeier that same day appeared in Bellevue’s grand hall for a statement. Standing in front of a gigantic, purplish, modernist painting (so huge, it had to be unrolled inside the room), he struck the tone for which Germans have already got to know him during the decades of his quiet political rise: somber, slow, avuncular, almost plodding – like the cadence of a pastor of the Reformed Protestant faith to which he belongs.

“Those who campaigned for political responsibility can’t duck away when they hold it in their hands,” he admonished, in what for him counts as a direct reprimand to all the political parties. No party has the right to refuse talks, he implied, every party has the duty to try and find a solution. He will repeat his exhortation many times this week, as he summons each leader of the parties to Bellevue. For Mr. Steinmeier still wants to avoid what Ms. Merkel would now prefer: new elections.

Mr. Steinmeier now determines the timing and sequence of events.

And so this week one limousine after another will be pulling up in front of Bellevue Castle. Christian Lindner, boss of the pro-business Free Democrats, will get an earful – it was he who, just before midnight on November 19, shocked Germany by abruptly withdrawing from the four-way talks. So will the leaders of the environmental Greens and the Bavarian CSU, who were, with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the other parties in the failed negotiations.

But it may be the Social Democrats who are in for Mr. Steinmeier’s sternest scolding. In a sense it was they, on the election night of September 24, who prepared the current crisis by immediately refusing even to discuss continuing their “grand coalition” with Ms. Merkel. Smarting from a bad result, they would rather sulk in opposition for four years while they search for a new message that might resonate with a changing electorate.

Mr. Steinmeier’s talks with Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats’ boss, will stay private but are sure to be frank. That is because Mr. Steinmeier is himself a Social Democrat — a “comrade,” as party members still call each other — even though as president he must now be an inactive party member and above partisan politics.

Ms. Merkel went to Bellevue Palace to meet Mr. Steinmeier on Monday. How times have changed. AP
In 2009, when Frank-Walter Steinmeier stood as the Social Democrat candidate for chancellor, he lost to Angela Merkel. REUTERS
Now, after 12 years in office and despite having been the most powerful woman in the world, Ms. Merkel's position is much weaker, while President Steinmeier will guide parliament and the country along the next steps. dpa
He started out working for Gerhard Schröder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005, his mentor, and a big, charismatic personality Mr. Steinmeier could not hope to match. picture alliance
Preferring to work behind the scenes, Mr Steinmeier is more a fixer and as foreign minister, he shone when, shuttling between Kiev and Moscow, he helped deescalate tensions after Russia annexed Crimea. dpa
Some have called Mr. Steinmeier aloof and uncharismatic but after countless state visits – Moscow, Athens, Israel, Palestine – he picked up a matey Maori greeting in New Zealand. dpa
That New Zealand trip was clearly relaxed: Mr. Steinmeier and his wife also squeezed in a hike, miles from Zehlendorf, the leafy Berlin suburb they call home. dpa
Mr. Steinmeier also maintains strong links to his first home in North Rhine-Westphalia, where he still supports the local soccer team. Here he shares a joke with SPD leaders Gerhard Schroeder and Martin Schulz during a Dortmund game. picture alliance
It will take all Mr. Steinmeier's persuasiveness, honed in hotter countries, to coax Germany's politicians into agreement and prevent a fresh election. Reuters

Mr. Steinmeier was born as the son of a carpenter and a paintbrush-factory worker, the kind of blue-collar folk who make up the Social Democrats’ traditional base. As a child he liked hamburgers with mash and sauerkraut, according to his mother, and to this day, Mr. Steinmeier has kept that unpretentious working-class air: He is so good at quitting smoking, he has quipped, that he does it over and over again.

He became a Social Democrat at 19, and later began rising through the party ranks as a “dull pen pusher” and a “dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat”, as the German press has described him. His ascent accelerated in the years during which he worked for Gerhard Schröder, who was premier of Lower Saxony in the 1990s and became chancellor in 1998. But his rise continued even after Mr. Schröder lost to Ms. Merkel in 2005. Mr. Steinmeier went on to serve as Ms. Merkel’s foreign minister twice – most recently until this March.

He was popular during these years, in part for his restrained manner, but also for a touching gesture toward his wife, to whom he donated a kidney in 2010, when she was very sick. Ever since, the couple celebrates that anniversary like a birthday. But he never showed the bite it takes to get into the chancellery. In 2009, when he was the Social Democratic candidate to challenge Ms. Merkel (who was simultaneously his boss in the existing cabinet), he appeared almost meek in their television debate – and promptly lost.

By personality, therefore, Mr. Steinmeier is a diplomat and a pragmatist, more than a leader. That happens to be a good fit for the task he now faces. “It’s a bit like conflict mediation, and that’s what he did as foreign minister,” says Thorsten Benner, head of the Global Policy Institute, a think tank in Berlin. Mediating, in fact, is a sort of obsession for Mr. Steinmeier: In 2014, when Russia’s Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, he was perusing Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers,” a book about how communication failures led to World War I exactly a century earlier. His mantra might be: Always, always, always keep talking – to Mr. Putin, to Mr. Lindner, to Ms. Merkel, to anybody.

By personality, Mr. Steinmeier is a diplomat and a pragmatist, more than a leader.

He might thus be exactly the sort of man the founding fathers of postwar Germany, in their 1949 constitution, had in mind for the highest office in the land (yes, he now outranks Ms. Merkel on paper). Their primary objective was to prevent the fate of the Weimar Republic from ever recurring on German soil. It had been a weak democracy of unstable minority governments, frequent changes of power and fragmentation in the center, which the Communists on the extreme left and the Nazis on the extreme right exploited to undermine the republican government. The new Germany was to have a stable democracy, based on compromise among the parties. The president’s job in this system was to be largely ceremonial, except in the rare circumstance when stability was at stake. As now.

This is why Mr. Steinmeier now determines the timing and sequence of events. He will first decide when he will propose a candidate to the Bundestag for chancellor (that would be Ms. Merkel, of course). Then he sets the date when the Bundestag votes on whether it will accept Mr. Steinmeier’s nominee. If Ms. Merkel fails to get an absolute majority of all members of the Bundestag, a second round of voting follows two weeks later. If no candidate wins a majority then, voting goes into a third round, in which a plurality can suffice.

If Ms. Merkel still falls short of an absolute majority then, it will be Mr. Steinmeier who decides whether to dissolve the Bundestag for new elections, which would have to take place within 60 days. The whole system is thus biased against quick, easy and frivolous snap elections of the sort that Britons, for example, are used to. Everything is geared toward negotiation and compromise among the parties, even if that means governing with only minority support.

For most of Mr. Steinmeier’s predecessors in the office, the German presidency was rather like a soft retirement: less glitzy than the British monarchy, slightly more interesting than volunteering for a charity and cutting ribbons. That’s because Germany since 1949 never had a crisis. Now it does. And Mr. Steinmeier is the man of the hour.

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: williams@handelsblatt.com

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