Seven months before national elections in Germany, the prevailing wisdom has held that Chancellor Angela Merkel, now seeking a fourth four-year term as chancellor, is most vulnerable to the rising popularity of the country’s far right. Yet on Sunday, the rebound of the left — along with the broad German distaste for President Trump that has helped fuel it — was on full display. The popular center-left Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has served in Merkel’s coalition government as foreign minister for seven years, won the presidency with 931 votes in the 1,260-member assembly that elects the president to a five-year term. The assembly is made up of members of Parliament as well as representatives from Germany’s 16 states.
Steinmeier, who succeeds East German prodemocracy activist Joachim Glauck, once called Trump a “hate preacher’’ and has said the new American administration poses a threat to trans-Atlantic relations. Despite being a largely ceremonial position, the presidency provides stature and an important platform for Steinmeier, a popular politician and an influential voice on foreign policy. In his brief acceptance speech, he encouraged Germans to be bold in difficult times. “If we want to give others courage, then we must have some ourselves,” he said on a day when many other speakers evoked the country’s dark past and its emergence as a democracy after the Nazis’ defeat in World War II. One marvel of traveling the world, he said, was to realize that Germany has become a model. “Isn’t it wonderful that this, our difficult fatherland, is seen as an anchor of hope for many people in the world?” Steinmeier said.
Before the vote, the conservative head of Parliament, Norbert Lammert, gave a surprisingly fiery speech that — without mentioning names — attacked Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia for trying to divide or weaken Europe. “Whoever champions a closed mind instead of openness to the world, whoever literally walls themselves in, bets on protectionism instead of free trade, and preaches isolationism instead of states cooperating, and declares ‘We first’ as a program, should not be surprised if others do the same — with all the fatal side effects for international ties which we know from the 20th century,” Lammert said. That goes, Lammert added, for individual European states “but also for our great partner country across the Atlantic.”
Once, it would have been rare for German politicians to lecture other democracies on values, especially the United States, but Germany is now regarded as a critical pillar in upholding the liberal Western order, which is one reason the Sept. 24 national elections are being watched so closely.
It is also why some of Merkel’s fellow conservatives quietly grumbled that she was outfoxed when she agreed to put Steinmeier forward as the presidential candidate of her grand coalition government, which unites her conservative bloc with the center-left Social Democrats. Even as the presidency stands above party politics, Steinmeier, 61, a lawyer and lifelong politician, will probably be a boon for his party.
His election coincided with a Social Democratic surge in opinion polls since the center-left chose Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, to lead them into battle against Merkel in the elections.
In a weekend cover story, Der Spiegel described the current period as “the twilight of Merkel” and noted that she had appeared listless of late. Merkel’s conservative bloc appears somewhat rattled. Her respected finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, the longest-sitting member of Germany’s Parliament, used an interview in Der Spiegel this weekend to accuse Schulz of Trump-style populism. “When Schulz lets his supporters shout, ‘Make Europe great again,’ then it is almost word for word Trump,” Schauble told the newsmagazine. Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrat who has replaced Steinmeier as foreign minister, swiftly retaliated: “The radical and ill-intentioned mockery” in US politics “should not be swept in to Germany,” he said.