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Tuesday, 1 June 2010

German president resigns


The president of Germany, Horst Köhler, in a move which completely surprised the country, resigned yesterday – the resignation to take effect immediately. In an obscure radio interview, on the way home from visiting German soldiers in Afghanistan, he had made a comment about German military activities and economic interests, almost a throwaway remark, inelegantly formulated, so that it was open to an old-fashioned militaristic interpretation. Given Germany’s history in the last century this is a sensitive theme and opposition politicians picked up on it and were critical, some even scathing. Köhler clarified his position subsequently, but the initial damage was done.
The German presidency is basically a ceremonial office (although the president is formally the head of state) and the president is not directly elected. Dropping his resignation bombshell, Köhler explained his step by claiming that the political criticism had so damaged the dignity of his office – which is regarded in Germany as being above politics – that he had no other option[i].
As is frequently the case in such stories, the event has a much more complex background. Although Köhler had been a member of the Christian Democrat party for years, prior to the nomination for his initial candidature six years ago (he started a second term last year) by Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, now chancellor and foreign minister respectively but at the time both leaders of the major opposition parties, he was not a professional politician. He had previously been a civil servant, an expert in economic and financial issues, and before his election had been boss of the IMF. His election by a tiny majority in the electoral assembly (a complex body composed of members of parliament and electors nominated by Germany’s provincial governments), was regarded as something of a coup for Merkel and a slap in the face for the then government under the chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder.
Köhler liked to define himself as a plain speaker and had occasionally caused controversy by critically commenting on aspects of political life, culture and issues in Germany and by a tendency to refuse his signature to proposed laws because of doubts about their constitutionality. In a number of cases this had meant the end of these laws. Strictly seen, this is part of his job – the problem was that the laws had come from a government now headed by Merkel, who was the one who had basically put him in the job in the first place. Reports over the past few years had increased that he was increasingly unhappy about his relative powerlessness and that he was the subject of growing (off-the-record) ridicule in political circles. In contrast to this, he was popular among ordinary Germans who liked his plain speaking and criticism of the professional political classes.
As a ceremonial, basically formal president, he was walking a thin line in all of this. As many commentators in Germany pointed out yesterday, it’s one thing for a (ceremonial) president to appeal to the dignity of his office; it’s quite something else to use the office as a bully pulpit to comment on actual issues and not to be open to criticism of the positions taken. The professional media commentators have pointed out that Köhler was excessively thin-skinned, prepared to dish it out but not able to take it, that he was unhappy in office, felt unsupported by the chancellor and her government and was either looking for an excuse to bail out or had acted too hastily or too sensitively. Nonetheless, there is some justification for Köhler’s perception of his position. In the controversy following his ambiguous remarks, Merkel and her ministers were conspicuous by their silence; justifying this Merkel commented that it would not be seemly for one organ of state, the chancellorship, to comment on another, the presidency. He informed her of his decision to resign by telephone, only two hours before going public with it.
Anyway, Köhler is gone and at the end of this month Germany’s politicians will choose a new president. Inside the Berlin beltway there seems to be a consensus that Köhler’s successor will almost certainly be a full-blooded politician. The experiment with a non-politician hasn’t worked and it’s time to get back to the tried and trusted method of filling the office with a political professional who knows the ropes from the inside, will do what is expected of him/her and will be in possession of that all-important political attribute, a rhinoceros-thick skin.
And this is the area where I see the most serious questions which the whole Köhler affair raises. World-wide we have a major problem with a nexus of issues involving leadership, trust and the professional political classes. In the democracies of the (so-called) developed world the credibility gap between politicians and the people who elect them and whom they supposedly represent is growing constantly, voter participation in the ritual of elections is declining and people generally seem to regard politicians as best located somewhere between rats and used-car salesmen. Many of those who still bother to go to the polls do so with a kind of resigned hopelessness, wondering, as they cast their votes, which of the candidates is the best of a thoroughly bad lot. Politics is the province of a small professional elite, its practitioners working their way up through a torturous party career, learning to wheel and deal, to compromise and backstab, to be bought and sold by all sorts of special interests, to speak while saying nothing; all part of a morally soul-leeching process, necessary to achieve the holy grail of power. And power is finally what they achieve; power to make decisions which have far-reaching effects on all of our lives.
We despise them and yet, if most of us were challenged to do something about it, to exercise our constitutional right to involve ourselves in the whole process, we would recoil in horror. The price, in time invested, in effort involved, in the (perhaps justifiably feared) erosion of our personal integrity, is just too high. In this sense – what a dreadful thought! – we do actually get the politicians we deserve, because, in the end we are too lazy, too comfortable, too fastidious to really do anything to change the situation. And, even more perilously, the combination of our inaction and despairing anger at those “up there” opens the door for dangerously lunatic populists such as Sarah Palin in the USA, or the late Jörg Haider in Austria.
Before this background, the failure of Horst Köhler is a shame, apart altogether from the specific issues involved, because it cements the blinkered view of most professional politicians that politics and the immense power that it brings belongs to them, because they are the only ones capable of dealing with it. Our best and brightest are doing other things – many of them going instead into business and finance, areas with their own morally sapping dangers as the events of recent years have amply shown. Even if the Köhler experiment (and it was a limited, largely powerless experiment) has failed, we need more non-professionals in politics, people who value integrity, people with a genuine idea of service, people who might just conceivably be able to inspire and lead.
Not that I’m volunteering, mind you … I’ve got lots of better things to do with my time (like [probably uselessly] sounding off here)!

[i] There are remarkable parallels to the resignation of the Irish president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in 1976. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cearbhall_Ó_Dálaigh

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