In Germany, President "Super Horst" Steps Down

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Markus Schreiber / AP

German President Horst Koehler, with his wife Eva Luise Koehler, declares his resignation following criticism about remarks he made on the German military deployments abroad, at Bellevue Palace in Berlin on Monday, May 31, 2010.

German President Horst Kohler shocked Germany on Monday when he announced without warning that he was quitting his post. It was an unprecedented step — the first time in Germany's post-war history that a President has handed in such a resignation with immediate effect — and the decision comes as a severe blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is fighting to hold her coalition government together.

It was a stunning turnaround for one of Germany's most popular political figures: a man once dubbed "Super Horst" by the media, whose outspoken criticism of bankers and campaign to fight poverty in Africa endeared him to many Germans. At a hastily arranged news conference in Berlin, Kohler told reporters that he was stepping down following hefty public criticism of remarks that he made over Germany's military deployments in which he appeared to link them with the country's economic interests. The legacy of World War II hangs heavily in Germany, and under the country's constitution the army is by definition a defensive one: German military deployments abroad are only possible as part of limited international missions, and definitely not for the purposes of furthering German industry. In a May 22 interview he gave to the Deutschlandradio public radio station after visiting German troops deployed in Afghanistan, Kohler suggested that "in emergencies, military intervention is necessary to uphold our interests, like for example free trade routes, for example to prevent regional instabilities which could have a negative impact on our chances in terms of trade, jobs and income." Kohler's interview caused a storm of protest, dominating newspaper headlines for several days.

This interview ended up costing him his job. "I regret that my comments about an important and difficult question for our country could have led to misunderstandings," said a solemn-faced Kohler, standing with his wife beside him at Bellevue Palace, his official residence. "It was an honour to serve Germany as federal President." And with those words, one of Germany's most popular Presidents bowed out of the political scene just one year into his second term in office.

While Kohler's office later insisted that he was referring to anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia, most assumed he had been talking about Afghanistan. "Horst Kohler broke a taboo, even if he didn't mean to, but his cautiously worded remarks implied that Germany's Afghan mission has nothing to do with humanitarian goals and is driven by economic interests," Nils Diederich, professor of Political Science at Berlin's Free University told TIME. "After all the flak he got, he had to resign."

Legal experts also claimed that Kohler's comments overstepped the mark and violated the German constitution. "The constitution only allows for the use of military force in defence of the territorial integrity of the country and as a member of an international organisation according to international law, (like the UN or NATO), says Ulrich Preuss, professor of law and politics at Berlin's Hertie School of Governance. Kohler's interview reminded him of "British imperialists in the nineteenth century who thought the defence of the open sea was a means of defending economic interests."

Kohler's sudden resignation touches a raw nerve for Merkel and her conservative party — after all, it was Merkel who put him forward for the job as President back in 2004, and Kohler, a former head of the International Monetary Fund, had been one of the Chancellor's most valuable advisors during the economic crisis. Merkel's centre-right coalition government has been rocked by tensions following the recent, deeply unpopular bailout of Greece and other Eurozone economies and the heavy losses suffered by Merkel's conservative party in a state election on May 9. Then last week, on May 25, another leading conservative politician, Roland Koch, the governor of the state of Hesse, announced he was quitting. "Kohler's resignation is another major headache for Chancellor Merkel," says Free University's Diederich. "She failed to show leadership after Kohler gave his radio interview and there will be more doubts now over her authority and credibility," he warns. Opposition politicians were quick to suggest that Kohler's resignation exposed a fundamental disarray in Merkel's centre-right government. "This is the beginning of the end," the head of the Green Party, Cem Ozdemir, told reporters on Monday afternoon. While the head of the Left Party's parliamentary group, Gregor Gysi, said Kohler's decision to quit would "deepen the crisis in Angela Merkel's coalition government."

As Germany's head of state, Kohler's role was largely ceremonial; he was responsible for signing into law bills which had already been approved by both houses of parliament. But the office is also considered the country's ultimate moral authority. Kohler's sudden departure creates a constitutional vacuum which will be filled temporarily by the current president of the German parliament's upper house, Social Democrat Jens Bohrnsen. Bohrnsen will now take over Kohler's duties until a new presidential election, which must be held within the next 30 days. Merkel, who had cancelled a trip to Italy following Kohler's announcement, said she tried to persuade him to change his mind, but had no luck. "I extremely regret this decision," she told reporters. "I think the people of Germany will be very sad about his resignation because Horst Kohler was a President of the people." But in the end, Germany's president found being in the public eye a thankless task — and his resignation puts Chancellor Merkel in a tight spot.