Germany to elect new president; Steinmeier the favorite

BERLIN, (AP): A German parliamentary assembly is electing the country’s new president on Sunday, and the country’s former foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is the overwhelming favorite to win.

The German president has little executive power, but is considered an important moral authority. The new head of state will succeed Joachim Gauck, a 77-year-old former pastor and East German pro-democracy activist who isn’t seeking a second five-year term because of his age.

The president is elected by a special 1,260-member assembly made up of the 630 lawmakers in parliament’s lower house and an equal number of representatives from Germany’s 16 states.

Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister until last month, has the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “grand coalition” of center-right and center-left parties. Between them, Merkel’s conservative Union bloc and the center-left Social Democrats — her junior coalition partners — hold 923 seats, which should assure Steinmeier’s election.

The presidential vote is likely to be one of the last moments of coalition unity ahead of a parliamentary election in September in which Merkel is seeking a fourth term. Both sides hope to end the “grand coalition.”

Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, has long been one of Germany’s most popular politicians. As former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s chief of staff, he was one of the main architects of Schroeder’s 2003 package of economic reforms and welfare cuts.

Under Merkel, he served twice as foreign minister — from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 until this year, with a stint as opposition leader in between. He has won respect for his persistence in trying to resolve the long-running crisis in Ukraine.

Steinmeier, 61, is normally studiously diplomatic, but strongly criticized Donald Trump during the U.S. election campaign.

Asked in August about the rise of right-wing populism in Germany and elsewhere, Steinmeier criticized those who “make politics with fear.” He cited the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, the promoters of Britain’s exit from the European Union, and “the hate preachers, like Donald Trump at the moment in the United States.”

There are four other candidates in Sunday’s election.

The opposition Left Party nominated Christoph Butterwegge, a political science professor who opposed Schroeder’s economic reforms. A deputy leader of Alternative for Germany, Albrecht Glaser, also is running, as is Alexander Hold, nominated by the small Free Voters party in Bavaria, and Engelbert Sonneborn, the father of a satirist.

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