Koehler re-elected as German president

May 23, 2009 7:57:56 AM PDT
Horst Koehler won a second term as German president Saturday in a parliamentary vote that gave conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel a symbolic victory months ahead of a national election. The popular 66-year-old, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats and former head of the International Monetary Fund, won just enough support from a special parliamentary assembly for another five years in the largely ceremonial job.

"I would like to help preserve what is valuable and change what is necessary," Koehler said in a brief speech after the vote. "I am looking forward to the next five years and, dear compatriots, I promise you I will continue to do my best."

Koehler won 613 votes in Saturday's vote by a special 1,224-member assembly, made up of lower-house lawmakers and delegates nominated by Germany's 16 state legislatures.

Challenger Gesine Schwan of the center-left Social Democrats won 503 votes. The opposition Left Party's Peter Sodann was backed by 91 delegates and far-right candidate Frank Rennicke by four.

The presidency, which carries moral authority but little real power, is supposed to be above the political fray.

However, this year's contest came four months before Merkel and Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her foreign minister, face off in a national election in which both hope to end their tense "grand coalition" of Germany's biggest parties.

Merkel, then Germany's opposition leader, installed Koehler in 2004 with the help of the pro-business Free Democrats, her preferred future coalition partner after Germany votes on Sept. 27. The same parties backed Koehler's re-election, with support from a smaller center-right group.

Merkel and the Free Democrats' leader, Guido Westerwelle, made a joint appearance to congratulate Koehler.

"Every election has its own dynamics, but it is no secret that we are working to achieve a majority together," Merkel told reporters. "Today we achieved what we wanted together."

Senior conservative ally Horst Seehofer described the outcome as "a clear signal" for a center-right victory later this year.

A defeat for Koehler would have been a symbolic blow to Merkel before September's vote and a surprise success for the Social Democrats, who have lagged in polls. They had hoped to win support from the Left Party and some center-right delegates in the sometimes unpredictable assembly.

Koehler often has positioned himself as an outsider to Germany's political elite.

He has occasionally refused to sign bills into law because of constitutional concerns, and recently warned politicians against using the financial crisis as a "backdrop for posturing."

Polls suggested that he would have won overwhelmingly if ordinary Germans could vote.

Koehler on Saturday identified labor, education and integrating minorities as areas where Germany should do better, but offered reassuring words on its prospects of weathering the global economic crisis.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we will make it," he said. "This country is strong."

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