Frank-Walter Steinmeier set to be German president

Setback for Angela Merkel as SPD foreign minister in line for mainly honorary post

German chancellor Angela Merkel has suffered a political setback by accepting that foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a candidate from the rival Social Democrat party (SPD), should be the country's next president.

Mr Steinmeier is likely to be voted into the largely honorary post with reluctant backing from the chancellor’s conservative CDU/CSU alliance, which has failed to find a suitable candidate.

While there was no official confirmation, leading CDU/CSU politicians spoke out in Mr Steinmeier's favour. Andreas Scheuer, the CSU general secretary, said he would be a good candidate.

"The CDU and CSU are in agreement. That is important," said Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader.


The decision will rob Germany of an experienced and respected foreign minister at a time of tension in international politics, with the US set for policy changes after Donald Trump's election; the UK facing an exit from the EU; and Russia asserting its power on the EU's eastern flanks.

The choice of Mr Steinmeier is a rare political victory for Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the social democratic SPD, ahead of next year's parliamentary elections. Both ruling parties in the coalition headed by Dr Merkel will be under pressure in the poll from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, which has won support during the refugee crisis.

Victory symbol

While Mr Steinmeier’s removal from frontline politics will deprive the social democrats of a popular figure in the parliamentary campaign, Mr Gabriel appears to have calculated that it is better to be able to point to a victory before next year’s election battle.

If the move is confirmed, Mr Steinmeier (60) would take over from Joachim Gauck, a 76-year-old former east German pastor who is retiring at the end of his five-year presidential term.

The agreement, after weeks of negotiation, means the ruling coalition will support Mr Steinmeier's candidature in a vote due early next year. The vote takes place at a combined assembly of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, and the Bundesrat, the upper house, which represents Germany's 16 regions.

Dr Merkel wanted a conservative but her favourite, Norbert Lammert, the Bundestag speaker, declined.

Clever move

With political leaders struggling to come up with compromise names, Mr Gabriel last month challenged the chancellor by proposing Mr Steinmeier. It was widely seen as a clever move: Mr Steinmeier is both a devoted social democrat and a politician with wide cross-party support, including in the CDU.

While the procedure for choosing a president means the CDU/CSU might have been able to block Mr Steinmeier, Dr Merkel seems to have decided that such an outcome would be undesirable for a post meant to unite all Gemans and that she did not want to be blamed for such a result. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016