Julius Haswell is a third year MML student at King’s reading German, and is currently on his year abroad in Berlin where he works also as a junior journalist. While Julius combines his love of German history and thought with a love of music, he also enjoys Zac Goldsmith and being on the losing side of elections. Below he argues that the lack of a truly democratic selection process of the German President prevents it from making the necessary case for democracy against Trump.
Everyone knows the cliché: Germans are efficient, hard-working, emotionless, humourless etc. For god’s sake, the television highlight of every German’s year is an English programme called “Dinner for one” about an old duchess whose four best friends have died, and so every year for her birthday meal she gets her butler to pretend to be her four friends to satisfy her nostalgia.
But actually perhaps the Germans do have some sort of a sense of irony, because I am sure that it reared its head in Sunday’s German Presidential Election. Democracy can only be used here in the loosest possible sense of the term.
Now come on, the German parliament is hardly the right scenario for comedy, right? Well, actually, had the election not been so mind-numbingly boring, more people may have been able to see the ridiculousness of the vote.
Let’s be very clear from the outset: the new president of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was not democratically elected by the German people. He has appointed himself as Germany’s new voice against Donald Trump, yet has absolutely no mandate to act in this capacity.
Not that funny so far, I know, but the man had the gall, not having been voted in democratically but, rather, having been appointed by the political elite of the nation, to call in his acceptance speech for stronger democracy in Germany. The “democratic” process by which he was given his new post makes a mockery of the very democracy he claims to want to strengthen. Pretty ironic eh? Okay maybe not.
The process is a little complicated, but I’ll give trying to explain this farcical system a go: Every five years the 630 members of the German parliament come together to vote in a new President. Along with the MPs, 630 “Electors” join them, who are made up of representatives the 16 states.
These “Electors” are purely for show. While they’re meant to represent the German people, the reality is very different. Each state has a different number of Electors based on its population size, and those electors who are chosen to represent their state are voted in by the regional government. This means that the 630 “Electors” have no mandate from the people to vote for the new President.
This means that the regional governments can vote for whomever they want. This led to the “Electors”, who are meant to represent ordinary Germans, being made up of film stars and singers, along with the German national football coach, Joachim Löw, and Germany’s most famous drag queen.
The reality of the actual vote is that it’s just a procession. It’s purely ceremonial. Everybody knew who the new President was going to be before the vote, to the extent that the winner didn’t have to campaign. So obvious was it, that his victory party was held the night before the vote! The arrogance.
So quickly to correct The Independent’s headline that “German’s elect new anti-Trump President”, they didn’t. He was given the post by his party.
The unbelievable thing about this vote is that the “Electors” are put there so that they can represent the German people, but the results of the vote do not reflect German opinion in the slightest. The Social Democratic Party candidate won with 74% of the vote, yet his party is polling at around 20% on a good day. While the second-placed candidate from The Left party got a relatively representative share of the vote at 10%, the third-placed candidate from the widely criticised Alternative for Germany, received 3% of the vote whereas most polls put the party at between 13% and 20%.
Now many might want to say at this point that I’m just splitting hairs. That actually none of this really matters because the President has no legislative power, he only signs off on new laws and only in times of crisis can step in to enforce the constitution. Besides, the Lords aren’t elected, are they?
But I say this completely misses the point. Steinmeier was the Anti-Trump candidate. He will now in all likelihood use his new position to criticise the new President. In fact he used his acceptance speech to criticise the President’s “America first” policy.
In response I would say this: In order for a politician to speak in a position of power on behalf of a nation or their constituents, they should be given to democratic mandate by the people they represent to do so. Steinmeier does not have this mandate, and so should not be speaking out on behalf of the German people.
Actually, Sunday would have been quite funny, as in an interview after his “election” he dismissed calls for a popular vote because otherwise the German people would expect him to say things and have opinions. Well I’m sorry, but you have already broken the rule of staying politically neutral by criticising the President of the US. I say it would have been funny, only because the President is normally meant to stay neutral, rather like the Queen. We all felt uncomfortable when the Queen supposedly came out in favour of Brexit, exactly because she had broken tradition and protocol, and I felt the same way in Germany.
Personally I believe Germany should be leading the way in the opposition towards Trump. But what is far more important is that those doing so on the behalf of the people have the democratic mandate to represent the people. We, the people, elect politicians to speak on our behalf and we should dismiss those who pretend they speak on our behalf without having been given that mandate.
Just because this man is against Trump it doesn’t mean that we should let our guard down. We should be strong in enforcing that politicians are only allowed to speak on our behalf if we allow them to, because ultimately they are responsible to us.
What is very clear is that the German people didn’t vote in this man to represent them: they had him voted in by Germany’s political elite in controlled elections, for them. What a shame.