German presidential election, 2004

German presidential election, 2004

The President of Germany ("Bundespräsident") is the titular head of state of the Federal Republic of Germany. The president's tasks are mostly ceremonial, but for the signing of all new federal laws before they go into effect. In practice however, all presidents have had informal influence on politics and society but mostly in a non-partisan way.

The president is not elected directly by the voters but by a special Federal Convention (Bundesversammlung) which is assembled every five years for this task alone. This body consists of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of members selected by the sixteen federal state parliaments.

The election date is currently set on May 23 every five years in the national capital Berlin. May 23 is the date the German Grundgesetz was accepted in 1949, but the date will be changed when a President leaves office before the completion of their term (as has happened before). Of the 1,206 members only 549 belonged to the parties which controlled the federal government - the Social Democrats (SPD) and the German Green Party. Also in their camp were the 31 members of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). The opposition parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP), however, had a majority of 624 members because they commanded more seats in the federal states. One member belonged to a regional party; one was non-aligned.

Each camp nominated a candidate for the job, although the outcome of the election is very predictable because the members of the convention normally vote with strict party loyalty. As the majority of the opposition was not overwhelming (624 of 604 needed), "dissident" members could cause a surprise.

The CDU/CSU and FDP nominee Horst Köhler was successful. Köhler was head of the IMF in Washington, DC, and before that, in the eighties and nineties, he was a senior official and was involved in negotiating both the German reunification treaty and the Maastricht Treaty on behalf of the German government. He is said to be rather modest but independently minded.

The SPD and Greens had nominated Gesine Schwan, currently head of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt (Oder). She is a renowned political scientist who also has been active for a long time in politics for the SPD - but has not always been in line with the party.

Since 1949, all eight presidents have been men, six members of the CDU or FDP, and two members of the SPD. Once in office, the President can be subsequently re-elected only once. The previous president Johannes Rau (SPD) cited personal reasons for his decision not to run for a second term. Rau died in 2006.

Köhler won in the first voting round, receiving an immediate absolute majority of 604 (50.1%).

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