Germans await presidential vote

It has not been exactly an election campaign; and yet the candidates have been the subject of constant runners-and- riders speculation, and party political games, in recent months.

The post is not political; and yet the way the vote goes sends a crucial political message in election year. The vote is secret; and yet party leaders' recommendations are crucial. In every respect Germany's presidential election on 23 May is a curious affair.

On that Monday, federal German MPs and the representatives of the 16 regional states will gather in Berlin to choose a successor to Richard von Weizsacker, who is about to complete two five-year terms as Germany's head of state.

His is a hard act to follow. He has steered clear of party politics. But he has often made powerful statements - on racist violence for example - bolstering his position as the unofficial conscience of the German people. He is a Christian Democrat. But he has often seemed at odds with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the party leader. His position is part- Queen, minus the pomp, and part-Archbishop of Canterbury. He represents his country with dignity at home and abroad. At the same time, he speaks out when he believes a moral jab would be beneficial.

It sounds lofty. But the presidential campaign of the past months (officially, not a campaign but a debate) has been anything but lofty. It has involved non-stop manoeuvring between the parties, as they jostle for position in the run-up to parliamentary elections in October.

From the start, the whole process has been under an electoral cloud. Last year there were private talks between the opposition Social Democrats and Mr Kohl regarding a jointly proposed candidacy for Johannes Rau, a senior figure in the Social Democrats (SPD). The talks foundered because the Christian Democrats (CDU) feared that a joint candidate implied they supported a grand coalition of the SPD and the CDU in the coming election.

The next possibility was the former foreign minister, Hans- Dietrich Genscher, who retired in 1992. He is enormously popular, not least because of his contribution to negotiating German unity. However, Mr Genscher was not prepared to stand.

Then it was the turn of Steffen Heitmann, the little- known Justice Minister of the eastern state of Saxony, to be thrown into the presidential spotlight. Chancellor Kohl emphasised his determination to have an east German candidate. The cynics argued that he was looking for electoral brownie points in the discontented east.

Mr Heitmann was eventually forced to resign, following an outcry against his right- wing views.

By this time the presidential field looked very muddy. The Free Democrats (FDP), junior coalition partner of the CDU, came up with their own alternative candidate to stymie Mr Heitmann, Hildegard Hamm- Brucher. The CDU then produced their own new candidate to replace Mr Heitmann - Roman Herzog, president of the constitutional court, the country's most senior judge.

In the background was Jens Reich, a respected east German scientist. His name was put forward by supporters of a non-party candidate for the post of president. Together with Mr Rau, whose hat was still in the ring, despite the failure of talks on a joint candidate, that made four.

The first presidential election since German unification will take place not in Bonn but Berlin, for the first time in 25 years. In 1971 Soviet threats forced West Germany to abandon the tradition of voting in Berlin, because the location implied the city remained Germany's capital.

President von Weizsacker has already shown the way. He moved to Berlin at the beginning of this year. Many Bonn politicians had been keen to postpone the departure.

The electors of the president are a specially created assembly. It is made up of the 662 members of the federal parliament, and another 662 members nominated by the 16 regional states, the Lander, according to the respective strengths of the parties in the regional parliaments.

The four candidates are all seen as 'decent'. None arouses the passions associated with Mr Heitmann. But there are paradoxes. Johannes Rau is by far the most popular candidate in the country. He enjoys more than 40 per cent support - twice as much as that of Mr Herzog. But he has little chance of victory.

Ms Hamm-Brucher is expected to drop out after the first or second round, when an absolute majority of votes is necessary. In the third round a relative majority is sufficient.

At that stage, most Free Democrats are expected to cast their votes for Mr Herzog, to indicate loyalty to the dominant coalition partner, the CDU, which is rising in the polls.

Thus, the election of the president will not just be about who is the best man or woman for the job. It will involve politicians sending appropriate signals - to the electorate and to each other - in advance of the October elections.

Not surprisingly, the electorate is not impressed by these shenanigans. According to one recent poll, about 80 per cent favour direct presidential elections next time. This would enable them to cut the political schemers out of the equation altogether.

(Photograph omitted)

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