The world may not have noticed yet, but Germany has a new head of state.
And although the presidency is mostly a ceremonial role, the inauguration of the first Social Democrat president in 13 years doesn’t bode well for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reelection chances later this fall.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was elected last month by a special joint session of both houses of parliament, was officially sworn in before lawmakers today in Berlin. Over the weekend, he moved into the presidential residence at Bellevue Palace, replacing Joachim Gauck, a 77-year old political independent, who had declined to run again.
There’s a reason why Mr. Steinmeier has attracted so little media attention: Presidents have little power in the German political system, and are largely relegated to ceremonial roles.
Mr. Gauck, a Lutheran minister from former East Germany who headed reunified Germany’s Stasi archives, spent his time in office using the bully pulpit, speaking out on issues of historical and ethical significance. Like him, Mr. Steinmeier picked up on the same themes today.
“We should not just talk about democracy — we need to learn to fight for it again,” Mr. Steinmeier said in his inauguration speech to the Bundestag.
“After 12 years with Merkel in power, people have grown somewhat tired.”
But Mr. Steinmeier may represent more than the latest holder of a largely powerless political office. The former protégé to SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder could be a harbinger of a bigger, more significant political change to come — one that could catapult a little-known Social Democrat, European lawmaker Martin Schulz, into the chancellery.
Mr. Steinmeier was not the candidate Ms. Merkel wanted to see occupying Bellevue Palace. His nomination last November came as a blow to the German chancellor, who had been politically weakened by the refugee crisis at the time and was unable to offer a politically palatable conservative alternative to then-SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel.
Since then, Ms. Merkel’s prospects of clinching a fourth term have dwindled after Mr. Schulz’s surprise nomination earlier this year replacing Mr. Gabriel, who alienated his party’s left wing with moderate stances on a E.U.-U.S. trade agreement and other business issues.
Observers are split on whether Mr. Steinmeier’s ascendancy signals a bigger change to come in German politics.
Wolfgang Merkel, a political research professor based in Berlin who is not related to the German chancellor, told Handelsblatt Global it would be far-fetched to see Mr. Steinmeier’s election as the beginning of the end of the Merkel era.
“Voters won’t think: ‘The new president is a Social Democrat, so let’s vote a Social Democratic chancellor into power,”’ he said.
Mr. Steinmeier’s victory does however suggest that Germans are open to replacing “Mutti” Merkel, and the SPD has surged in recent polls, which now show the race between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz as being neck-and-neck.
“There’s a yearning for change among voters,” Mr. Merkel said. “After 12 years with Ms. Merkel in power, people have grown somewhat tired.”
“What will get Schulz elected is not having Steinmeier in Bellevue Palace, but whether or not Schulz does a great campaign”
Mr. Schröder was Germany’s last SPD chancellor before Ms. Merkel ousted him in 2005.
Four years later, the SPD put forward Mr. Steinmeier, then Germany’s vice chancellor and leader of Ms. Merkel’s junior coalition partner, as its chancellor candidate. But he was quickly dispatched by Ms. Merkel in her first reelection bid.
After the loss, Mr. Steinmeier took a back-seat role in the SPD, in part to donate one of his kidneys to save his wife’s life. In 2013, the SPD lost again handily with its candidate Peer Steinbrück, the German finance minister who failed to connect with voters.
This year with Mr. Schulz, a charismatic Everyman who’s spent most of his career in European politics in Brussels, the Social Democrats have a better shot at ousting Ms. Merkel.
Mr. Steinmeier, bound by the nonpartisan traditions of the president’s role, will be largely a passive observer as his party attempts to end Ms. Merkel’s 12-year reign. It will be up to Mr. Schulz to determine if the SPD finally comes in from the political woods.
“What will get Schulz elected is not having Steinmeier in Bellevue Palace, but whether or not Schulz does a great campaign,” Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst, told Handelsblatt Global.
Nevertheless, Mr. Steinmeier, who was Germany’s foreign minister before becoming president, is popular and could lend tacit support to Mr. Schulz in his long-shot bid for the presidency.
Both are SPD moderates and political brethren of sorts.
The two men led efforts to reform the left-leaning SPD and tone down its extreme elements over the last decade. As foreign minister since 2014, Mr. Steinmeier worked with Mr. Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, on European political issues such as Ukraine and the Greek debt crisis.
Mr. Neugebauer, the political analyst, said both Social Democrats share the party’s traditional emphasis on social justice and income equity.
Social Democrats are hoping that Mr. Steinmeier will precede Mr. Schulz into power, which would make him Germany’s first SPD chancellor since Mr. Schröder.
Party faithful like to look back to 1969, when an SPD politician, Gustav Heinemann, was inaugurated as German president. Three months later, the SPD firebrand and Ostpolitik architect Willy Brandt was sworn in as German chancellor.
Mr. Merkel, the historian, cautions that the situations are not parallel. The SPD’s landslide in the late 1960s came on the heels of Vietnam War protests that had swept Europe. “People were positively fed up after 20 years of rule by a dusty and arch-conservative CDU,” he said.
But German voters this year, while worried about an unpredictable U.S. ally and Russian aggression in Ukraine, are not clamoring for change as loudly as they did 50 years ago.
Mr. Steinmeier, bound by the strictures of the German presidency, will likely remain a “neutral” figure in the election campaign, Mr. Merkel said.
Indeed, Ms. Merkel’s conservative supporters will be watching carefully to make sure the new president does not step outside the political lines.
That political footwork will be left up to Mr. Schulz.