THE election of Roman Herzog as German president means Chancellor Helmut Kohl can breathe a little easier about his reelection hopes.
But it remains to be seen how successful Mr. Herzog will be in following in the footsteps of Richard von Weizsacker, the incumbent who has transformed the largely ceremonial post of president into a position as moral guardian of the reunited nation.
Herzog currently serves as president of the German Constitutional Court and is viewed by the public as a conservative with an unpredictable liberal streak.
He has already shown a capacity to spark controversy with his comments on the current state of German society.
A special 1,324-member electoral college, which met May 23 in the Reichstag in Berlin, selected Herzog on the third ballot of presidential voting.
The president-elect, the candidate of Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), led on all three ballots, but failed to capture the required majority on the first two.
In the third vote, Hildegard Hamm-Bruecher - the candidate of the centrist Free Democrats, a coalition partner in Kohl's government - withdrew from the race, and a majority of the party's delegates then supported Herzog. The final tally was 696 votes for Herzog, 605 for the nominee of the opposition Social Democrats, Johannes Rau, and 11 for Hans Hirzel, the candidate of the extreme right-wing Republican Party.
Kohl beamed when the election results were announced. For the Chancellor, the vote was a major test of his ability to keep the governing coalition in line.
Half the members of the electoral college, which voted by secret ballot, were drawn from the lower house of Parliament, while the rest represented Germany's 16 states. Because Kohl's CDU-led coalition dominates the parliament, Herzog was the clear favorite from the start. But the secret ballot provided an element of unpredictability for Kohl.
There was reason for Kohl to feel just a bit nervous.
A few weeks before the election, Herzog created a storm when he said in a magazine interview that foreigners residing in Germany who decline to adopt German citizenship should return to their homelands. The comment angered many Free Democrats, the party that held the key swing-block of votes in the presidential vote. Some Free Democrats called on the party to support Mr. Rau's candidacy. Herzog claimed he was being misinterpreted.
In addition, some eastern German CDU members were disgruntled over Kohl's refusal to back a candidate from eastern Germany. Kohl originally made Steffen Heitmann, justice minister in eastern Saxony state, his presidential pick. But the politically inexperienced Mr. Heitmann was forced to withdraw his candidacy last November after making a series of controversial statements.
In the end, most of the Free Democrats remained loyal, providing momentum to Kohl's come-from-behind effort to win a fourth term in parliamentary elections on October 16.
``What's sown in May will be harvested in October,'' Kohl told German television. Kohl's Christian Democrats have been trailing the Social Democrats in opinion polls. But with the German economy on the rebound, the CDU has been making up ground in the polls.
Herzog, a burly Bavarian with a thick southern accent, will assume office July 1. Mr. Von Weizsacker, a highly popular figure, was constitutionally barred from seeking a third five-year term. He has been outspoken during his 10 years in office, urging Germans not to forget the country's Nazi past and stressing tolerance.
Before joining the Constitutional Court, Herzog gained a reputation as an conservative while serving as interior minister of the western Baden-Wurttemberg state. But his record on Germany's highest court is far from hard-line conservative.
In his acceptance speech May 23, Herzog pledged he would be a president that represented both eastern and western Germany. Since reunification in 1990, many eastern Germans have become disenchanted with what they perceive as the domineering attitude of many westerners.
``There are many barriers in our state and our society which must be overcome,'' Herzog said. ``But there is an enormous amount in common that binds us.''
Social Democrats were harshly critical of Herzog for failing to condemn right-wing extremism in his acceptance speech. The issue has recently regained the spotlight, following a May 12 neo-Nazi melee in the eastern city of Magdeburg.
As for October election omens, Social Democrats dismiss Herzog's election as a sign heralding a Kohl triumph. ``The outcome of the presidential race will have no bearing on the election in October,'' Rau told the Monitor on May 13.
Social Democratic leaders pointed to opinion polls that showed that if the president was popularly elected instead of by special assembly, Rau would have won easily over Herzog.