Archive for May 31st, 2010

Monday, May 31, 2010

German Presidency: Politician wanted

President Horst Köhler has resigned. I believe that he has done Germany a favor by doing so. Roland Nelles of  Der Spiegel writes:

His efforts to provide [the public with] orientation disappeared without a trace. His desire to present himself as a semi-neo-liberal reformist president went up in smoke. With the CDU’s [chancellor Merkel’s party],  CSU’s [the CDU’s Bavarian sister party], and FDP’s  [liberal democrats] miserable performance he had to recognize that many people in the country didn’t want this policy. His mission had failed before it had even begun. Angela Merkel bode the reform policies farewell, and so did her president.

What remained was a vacuum.

That was his problem when he became president. He was an anti-Schröder president – Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, opposition leaders then, chancellor and foreign minister now, had him nominated and elected by the Federal Convention (where they had a majority) to signal a change in government.

It was too apparent that he wanted a CDU-led coalition. Whatever else he said and did – and he wasn’t the chancellor’s puppet -, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who wanted the social democrats to be the leading governing party could forget the circumstances of his first election in 2004.

He was no politician. He was an official who wanted to serve his country. This sounds great. But his predecessors, who had been elected officials before rising to the highest office, were better at finding the right words when the public was uneasy. And when he went to China, he seemed to be voiceless.

His predecessor, Johannes Rau, wasn’t. When speaking at Nanjing University in 2003, he said:

The Chinese government knows that in our view, rule of law and human rights are immediately linked to each other. We came to this belief through our own, woebegone history.

Therefore, we will always raise our voice when we believe that single persons or minorities aren’t treated as it would correspond with our concept of rule of law and human rights. We want to do that in a discussion with each other, and respectful of different political, historical and social developments of our countries, and in the belief that China is on its way to more democracy and rule of law.

When we do this in this way, it will rather improve our friendly relations. After all, we also expect our friends to give us advice and that they candidly give us their opinions.


One must not misunderstand the advocacy for human rights as a specifically “western” concern which wants to thrust “western” thought on the rest of the world. This impression may arise when human rights and their concretion with western, strongly individualistic society are basically equated. But that would be a wrong perspective. The concept of human rights can take different shapes, including one more related to binding association and common duties as it may correspond with Asian and particularly Chinese culture, shaped by Confucian ethics of duty.


When the fundamental rights of a person, life and liberty, protection from torture, discretionary internment and discrimination are the issue, all that is a prerequisite for walking tall, fundamentally, there can be no relativizing, and no compromise.

I can’t quote president Köhler when Germany’s relations with China are the issue. There was no orientation.

This is how he declared his resignation:

My comments about foreign missions by the Bundeswehr on May 22 this year met with heavy criticism. I regret that my comments led to misunderstandings in a question so important and difficult for our nation. But the criticism has gone as far as to accuse me of supporting Bundeswehr missions that are not covered by the constitution. This criticism is devoid of any justification. It lacks the necessary respect for my office.

But does Köhler himself, with his resignation, show the respect the office deserves? And did he need to take accusations of supporting unconstitutional action seriously enough to throw in the towel?  The only accusation of this kind I have heard came from the Left Party’s Gregor Gysi – there is no reason to belief that many citizens agreed with him. This doesn’t look plausible. Criticism from the Left Party is no justification for a resignation from this country’s highest office.

All the same, I’m feeling sad. It never occured to me that a German president might resign, simply because the man and the office didn’t fit together, as Der Spiegel has put it today. But that’s probably the real reason for Köhler’s decision. Why didn’t he simply decide not to run for office once again last year, but rather stood for re-election? Was it because federal parliamentary elections were looming again, and because the CDU, the CSU, and the FDP wanted to have their way together at last? Was Köhler serving as a signal – and if so, only for the first time, or for the second time? Either way, the christian democrats and the FDP  had their way, and lost public approval only months after forming this government.

What’s next? Köhler is a decent, and even far-sighted man. His business-mindedness and his unusual economic expertise, too, could have served good ends. But his successor will need to be a real politician again – a man or woman who can communicate real issues to the public. And at the same time, he or she will have to be a politician who can make us forget his or her political affiliation.


Reasons, reactions, succession candidates, BBC News, June 1, 2010

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