German Figurehead Proves Tough to Find


WANTED: German president. Must be savvy self-starter who thrives on spotlight. Duties: national role model. Good communication skills preferred.

Germany is having trouble finding a President. It has many candidates but no one with the stature to glide into the largely ceremonial post. Instead, the search has degenerated into a political dogfight that is growing increasingly tense.

The front-runner, if he can be called that, is Steffen Heitmann, a state justice minister from Saxony. Mr. Heitmann has some important qualifications: First, he is Chancellor Helmut Kohl's candidate, and second, he is from eastern Germany.

The geography is important. Western German politicians are eager to show that their former Communist brethren are equals, even though they hold no levers of power in national politics.

Mr. Heitmann's problem is that he has alienated just about everybody in his bid to become better known. Jewish groups condemn him for comments questioning the current relevance of the nation's Nazi past (``The genocide of the Jews should not require Germany to act in a special way until the end of time,'' he says.) Liberals accuse him of fanning fears of foreigners invading the country. Many women don't like his suggestion that they stay at home rather than go to work. Homosexuals were angered when he said they were justifiably disadvantaged because they are minorities.

As a result, Mr. Kohl's coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), said Friday it would not vote for Heitmann.

Even though the president has no political power, these maneuverings are important, especially in the run-up to next year's election. Political observers note that in 1969 the FDP voted against the presidential candidate of its coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, and backed the Social Democratic candidate. That move foreshadowed a new coalition between the FDP and the Social Democrats. It may do so again.

``Nobody really knows how it may develop,'' says Hans-Joachim Veen, research director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation here in Bonn. But ``I could not imagine that the FDP would support another candidate and would try to get into a coalition again'' with the Social Democrats. The foundation is closely associated with Kohl's ruling Christian Democrats.

At the moment, the FDP is running its own candidate for president, former parliamentary member Hildegard Hamm-Brucher. But she is largely viewed as a token candidate. On Friday, the party's secretary-general was quoted in the Neue Westfalische newspaper as saying that the party would support the Social Democrats' candidate, Johannes Rau, before it voted for Heitmann. Mr. Rau, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, is a longtime figure in the liberal Social Democratic Party and thus unacceptable to Kohl's conservative Christian Democrats.

LAST week, top Christian Democrat officials nominated Heitmann for the presidency, even though several party dissidents are urging a compromise candidate. The president is not popularly elected. A special assembly of parliament and state delegates will convene next May to pick someone.

Heitmann's controversial comments have not helped him in his bid for the presidency. The only groups to support his remarks are from the extreme right wing.

Heitmann and his supporters say his remarks about the Holocaust have been misinterpreted. ``The process we had in West Germany of discussing this period they have never had'' in East Germany, says Andreas Krautscheid, deputy spokesman for the Christian Democrats.

In any case, the controversy stands in sharp contrast to recent speeches by the current president, Richard von Weizsacker. He has turned the largely ceremonial office of the presidency into a bully pulpit for helping Germany come to terms with its dark past. He won high praise, for example, when he expressed the nation's sorrow for German right-wing attacks.

Much will be expected of his successor.

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