Billed as Germany’s “anti-Trump”, centre-left former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was elected Sunday as the new ceremonial head of state.
The 61-year-old, who regularly polls as Germany’s most popular politician, will represent the EU’s top economy abroad and act as a kind of moral arbiter for the nation.
His Social Democrats (SPD) hope the appointment will boost their fortunes just as their candidate Martin Schulz, the former European parliament president, readies to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in September elections.
Steinmeier received 931 of 1,239 valid votes after Merkel’s conservatives, lacking a strong candidate of their own, agreed to back him to replace incumbent Joachim Gauck, 77, a former pastor from ex-communist East Germany.
With his snowy white hair, round glasses and dimpled smile, Steinmeier is one of Germany’s best-known politicians, having twice served as top diplomat under Merkel for a total of seven years.
Though the trained lawyer is usually measured in his speech, in the thick of last year’s US election campaign Steinmeier labelled Donald Trump a “hate preacher”.
After the billionaire won the White House, Steinmeier predicted relations would get “more difficult” and said his staff were struggling to detect any “clear and coherent” foreign policy positions from Trump.
As 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”.
Political scientist Michael Broening of the SPD’s think-tank the Friedrich Ebert Foundation said that “as foreign minister, Steinmeier often acted as a voice of reason, bridging gaps and bringing people together”.
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 raised eyebrows with NATO partners last year when he criticised a military exercise in Poland as “sabre rattling”.
Having Steinmeier move into the presidential Bellevue Castle in Berlin has emboldened the SPD.
The election may still be more than seven months away, but the SPD finally hopes to have a realistic shot at toppling Merkel.