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Reform expected from likely German president

Published on 19/05/2004

21 May 2004

BERLIN – Germany is to elect a new federal president Sunday and the likely winner – a former International Monetary Fund chief – is poised to push reforms aimed at curing a creaking economy.

Horst Koehler, candidate of the opposition conservatives, looks set to coast to victory given a 19-vote majority in the 1,205-member Federal Convention which convenes every five years to elect Germany’s head of state.

The Convention has a conservative majority for Koehler thanks to opposition domination of parliament’s upper chamber, the Bundesrat.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democratic (SPD) nominee, Gesine Schwan, head of the Europa University in Frankfurt an der Oder, is given only a slim chance of pulling off an upset win.

Koehler, who headed the IMF from 2000 to 2004, would be a sharp change from outgoing SPD Federal President Johannes Rau who has taken a soft stand on controversial issues during most of his five years in office.

A deeply religious Christian, Rau seeks to mediate conflicting interests in the tradition of Germany’s post-war consensus system.

Koehler, who would be only the second non-professional politician to become a German head of state, looks more likely to knock heads together. The news magazine Der Spiegel predicts he will jettison what it terms Rau’s “Sunday preaching” and “moral interjections.”

Germany’s president may be a mainly ceremonial office with fewer powers than the US or French presidency – but the post has considerable moral authority to set the public agenda.

“Germany must wake up,” says Koehler, adding: “We need a really deep and broad renewal.”

For Chancellor Schroeder a Koehler presidency promises to be prickly and defeat for his candidate would be a bad omen before next month’s European Parliament election with the ruling SPD sagging at record opinion poll lows.

While Koehler has praised Schroeder’s economic and tax reforms as a “courageous step” he is quick to add: “But this is only a first (step).”

In past weeks Koehler has taken stands on turning around Germany’s stagnant economy – with almost 11 percent unemployment – which are rattling centrist and left-leaning Germans.

Regarding biotech, Koehler dismisses widespread public fears and says decisions must be made “on economic grounds.”

Regarding the unpopular question of imposing longer working hours for Germans who mostly have a 35 or 36-hour working week, Koehler flatly says: “It’s necessary.”

Koehler argues charging fees for Germany’s largely free-of-charge universities cannot be taboo.

After years in Washington, Koehler is also bluntly undiplomatic about his analysis of the US-led war in Iraq.

He says the US had “behaved arrogantly” in Baghdad and that “power had gone to the heads of the Americans.”

Koehler has been outspoken in his previous posts as deputy German finance minister from 1990 to 1992, head of Germany’s public sector Savings Bank Association from 1992 to 1998 and president of the London European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 1998 to 2000.

Although serving as Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s “sherpa” at major meetings such as the G7 summit, Koehler was one of the few government officials to publicly warn about soaring public debts to fund the 1990 German unification and fast-track replacement of the soft East German mark with the hard Deutsche Mark.

Despite such independent thinking, however, Koehler was widely seen as remaining loyal to Kohl.

Koehler, who is married with two children, looks far younger than his 61 years.

He was born in Skierbieszow, Poland in 1943 to ethnic German parents forced to flee their farm in Romania during World War II.

The family joined German refugees leaving Poland in 1945 ahead of the advancing Soviet Red Army and Koehler spent his first 10 years in Leipzig in communist East German before his family settled in West Germany.

Having now moved from Washington back to Berlin, Koehler recently faced a far less fundamental problem: the telephone company refused to give him a mobile phone because he could not prove a fixed address in the German capital.

Asked about such examples of Germany’s infamous bureaucracy, Koehler had his customary snappy answer: “It deserves to be axed.”


Subject: German news