German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier looks likely to take over his country's presidency next year after garnering the backing of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, the Christian Social Union and his own Social Democrats.
With the support of all three major government coalition partners, it seems unlikely that Steinmeier will face a serious rival for the president's office — a largely ceremonial head-of-state role, entrusted largely with maintaining German unity and representing the nation in formal foreign affairs.
But Steinmeier's appointment would be especially notable in light of last week's U.S. presidential election. As foreign minister, Steinmeier was one of President-elect Donald Trump's most vocal critics on the world stage.
In August, Steinmeier suggested that Trump was a “hate preacher,” saying the Republican candidate and anti-immigration parties in Europe “make politics with fear,” according to Deutsche Welle. He had previously criticized Trump's “America first” policy, suggesting that the U.S. election campaign season may “lack the perception of reality.”
The foreign minister's candid comments stood in contrast to the approach taken by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who mostly kept a relatively neutral position throughout the U.S. election. Spokeswoman Sawsan Chebli acknowledged this in August, saying at a news conference that Steinmeier was “indeed not neutral on this question, because he thinks that if you follow what Trump is saying, then you need to be really scared about what could become of this world . . . if [Trump] does in fact become president.”
After Trump was elected, Steinmeier suggested that the results were an “earthquake” and that people had to struggle to find any “clear and coherent” foreign policy positions from Trump's statement.
Trump isn't the only subject on which the German foreign minister is known to speak his mind. Steinmeier also has been a vocal critic of Britain's vote to leave the European Union, calling it “a sad day for Europe and Britain” — and later adding that he was “not particularly amused” by Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, who had backed Brexit. Steinmeier also caused some controversy within European political circles this summer by warning NATO about “saber-rattling” against Moscow.
Steinmeier is popular at home — in one recent poll, 67 percent of Germans said they felt he should play an important role in the future of Germany, four percentage points higher than Merkel. His comments about Trump may have helped his reputation: Just 6 percent of Germans have confidence in Trump when it comes to world affairs, according to the Pew Research Center.
If Steinmeier becomes president, it would be a promotion. However, it would also remove a prominent critic of the populism engulfing the world stage. It remains unclear who would succeed him as foreign minister, although Martin Schulz — president of the European Parliament, who has taken a more pragmatic stance on Trump — has been mentioned in the German press.
Merkel's party is known to have initially favored putting forward its own candidate for president but after struggling to find anyone suitable decided that it was best to show a unified front ahead of next year's federal elections — especially considering the gains Germany's own anti-establishment movement, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), has made in recent regional elections.
The president is not directly elected but is chosen by members of the Bundestag and delegates from state parliaments. The current president, Joachim Gauck, is due to retire and be replaced in February.
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