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Merkel's conservatives back foreign minister Steinmeier for president

Reuters , Monday 14 Nov 2016
Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (C) attends an EU foreign affairs council at the European Council, in Brussels on November 14, 2016. ( AFP PHOTO )
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The ruling parties in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government agreed on Monday to put forward Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to take over as German president next year, a move that would necessitate a cabinet reshuffle.

Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), had considered pushing for their own candidate but ultimately backed Social Democrat Steinmeier to avoid a prolonged fight with his party, their partner in the ruling 'grand coalition'.

"We're in agreement, CDU and CSU," said Horst Seehofer, Bavarian state premier and head of the CSU.

That paves the way for Steinmeier to be elected in February to the largely ceremonial post now held by Joachim Gauck, a Lutheran pastor who made his mark as an anti-communist leader in the former East Germany.

Social Democrat (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel said it was premature to talk about a successor for Steinmeier as foreign minister, but media reports suggested European Parliament President Martin Schulz could be in the frame.

Schulz has in recent weeks criticised Turkey over human rights and taken a firm line towards Britain over its pending departure from the EU. Last week he said he hoped for "rational cooperation" with U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, whom he had previously described as "not only a problem for the EU but also for the whole world".

Gauck's presidential term expires in March 2017, about six months before Germany holds a parliamentary election.

Merkel, 62, is widely expected to run for a fourth term as chancellor, and a poll last week showed more than half of Germans want her to do so.

Steinmeier, backed by many German industry leaders, academics and cultural leaders, raised concerns among U.S. and NATO officials earlier this year when he said a series of Western military exercises in eastern Europe could be seen as "sabre-rattling" against Russia.

Steinmeier has pushed hard to end fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and frequently condemns Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea as a violation of international law.

At the same time, he backs continued dialogue with Russia, a view shared by Trump and backed by German industry. However, Steinmeier has also been outspoken in his criticism of Trump, calling him a "preacher of hate" before the election.

The president is not directly elected by the people, but rather by the Federal Convention, an assembly of members of the federal parliament and delegates from state parliaments.

German presidents serve five-year terms and can only be re-elected once. They are considered a moral authority, represent the country on the world stage and have the authority to dissolve parliament. 

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