Steinmeier voted in as German president

Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier with his wife Elke Buedenbender. The 61-year-old is one of Germany's best-known politicians.
Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier with his wife Elke Buedenbender. The 61-year-old is one of Germany's best-known politicians.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Ex-foreign minister elected for 5-year term by Federal Assembly, takes office in March

BERLIN • Billed as Germany's "anti- Trump", centre-left former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been elected the country's ceremonial president in a vote held in the national Parliament.

Mr Steinmeier was voted in yesterday as head of state for a five- year term, with 931 out of 1,239 valid votes, by a special Federal Assembly made up of lawmakers and state deputies as well as artists, writers and other citizens. The 61-year-old, who regularly polls as Germany's most popular politician, will represent the European Union's top economy abroad and act as a kind of moral arbiter for the nation.

His Social Democratic Party (SPD) hopes the appointment will boost its fortunes just as its candidate Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president, readies to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in September elections.

Mr Steinmeier replaces incumbent Joachim Gauck, 77, a former pastor from former communist East Germany.

With his snowy white hair, round glasses and dimpled smile, Mr Steinmeier is one of Germany's best- known politicians, having twice served as top diplomat under Dr Merkel for a total of seven years.

VOICE OF REASON

As foreign minister, Mr Steinmeier often acted as a voice of reason, bridging gaps and bringing people together. It is hardly surprising that Steinmeier has branded himself as the essential anti-Trump.

POLITICAL ANALYST MICHAEL BROENING, of SPD think-tank Friedrich Ebert Foundation, on Germany's new president.

Although the trained lawyer is usually measured in his speech, in the thick of last year's United States election campaign, Mr Steinmeier labelled Mr Donald Trump a "hate preacher".

After the billionaire won the White House, Mr Steinmeier predicted relations would get "more difficult" and said his staff were struggling to detect any "clear and coherent" foreign policy positions from Mr Trump.

As Mr Steinmeier has prepared for the new post, which he assumes on March 19, he has vowed to serve as a "counterweight to the trend of boundless simplification", calling this approach "the best antidote to the populists".

Mr Steinmeier is known to have lost his cool only once, in 2014, when he yelled at Berlin protesters who had accused him of being a "warmonger" over his Ukraine policy. The outburst was so unusual it became a minor YouTube hit.

A policy wonk by nature, Mr Steinmeier served as adviser and then chief of staff to Dr Merkel's predecessor, the SPD's Gerhard Schroeder.

In 2009, Mr Steinmeier ran against Dr Merkel and lost badly, only to return years later to serve in her Cabinet.

Political scientist Michael Broening of SPD think-tank Friedrich Ebert Foundation said that "as foreign minister, Mr Steinmeier often acted as a voice of reason, bridging gaps and bringing people together".

"It is hardly surprising that Steinmeier has branded himself as the essential anti-Trump," he added.

Mr Steinmeier is well known in the world's capitals, but his appointment worries some in eastern Europe, who see him as too soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He also raised eyebrows with Nato partners last year when he criticised a military exercise in Poland as "sabre rattling".

Having Mr Steinmeier move into the presidential Bellevue Castle in Berlin has emboldened the SPD.

After years in the shadow of Dr Merkel, the Social Democrats are smelling blood as the Chancellor faces deep divisions within her own conservative camp, and the rise of the hard-right populist party Alternative for Germany after she opened German borders to a million asylum seekers since 2015.

Since Mr Schulz took over the candidacy late last month, the SPD has risen sharply in the opinion polls.

It scored 32 per cent - its highest in a decade and only one point behind Dr Merkel's conservatives - in an Emnid poll for the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, which asked in a headline: "Is this the beginning of the end of the Merkel era?"

The election may still be more than seven months away, but the SPD finally hopes to have a realistic shot at toppling Dr Merkel.

"For Germany's Social Democrats, Steinmeier's election is a prelude to something bigger to come: a victory in September's elections against Merkel," said Mr Broening.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Steinmeier voted in as German president'. Print Edition | Subscribe