Frank-Walter Steinmeier is Germany’s next president. The Social Democrat has been a high-ranking politician for almost 20 years and once set his sights on becoming chancellor – but was defeated by Angela Merkel. On February 12, Frank-Walter Steinmeier was elected president as the agreed-upon candidate of the CDU, CSU and SPD parties that form the German government. Judging by the overwhelming majority of votes he has received from the grand coalition in parliament, no-one can be in any doubt of the outcome.
After lengthy wrangling Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), will hoist the Social Democrat politician into the country's top office.
Steinmeier has been an established name in federal politics for many years, most recently as foreign minister in the grand coalition of the CDU/CSU and SPD. According to polls, the majority of people see him as the face of German diplomacy. His position as foreign minister was the most recent in a series held by the 60 year-old in his almost 20 year political career.
His previous posts include being head of the chancellery, parliamentary party leader, foreign minister and chancellor candidate. When Steinmeier replaces current president, Joachim Gauck, a man who is no stranger to politics will be taking the stage.
Germany's most popular politician
Indeed, Steinmeier possesses many of the qualities necessary for the office of president. Serving most recently as foreign minister under Merkel, he enjoys a high level of bi-partisan respect, has diplomatic experience, is internationally esteemed and has often proven himself in times of crisis.
Opinion poll results also reflect his high reputation. For years, Steinmeier has ranked as one of Germany's most popular politicians. After weeks of deliberation, his popularity ultimately gave great weight to the argument that the selection process should choose the SPD candidate.
Raised as a carpenter's son from North Rhein-Westphalia, observers have long assumed that Steinmeier had his sights set on the country's highest office. In his many trips as foreign minister, in which he totalled almost 400,000 kilometers in the air per year, he came across as almost presidential.
And he was always intent on reconciliation. In the Ukraine conflict in particular, he earned a high reputation through his tireless shuttle diplomacy between Kyiv and Moscow. At the time, Steinmeier helped to defuse the conflict, which was attributed to his considered choice of words.
His choice of words has also been striking in the way he has made headlines with his view of the new US President Donald Trump. He called presidential candidate, Donald Trump, a “hate preacher.” Later he described Trump's presidency as marking “the end of the old world order.”
This didn't fit at all to his reputation as a diplomat, who some observers have even described as having a tendency towards being a bland bureaucrat.
Rise to power alongside Chancellor Schröder
His career started alongside former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD). Steinmeier was head of the state chancellery when Schröder was still state premier of Lower Saxony. After the SPD won the federal election in 1998 he moved to the center of political power in Berlin, where he held the position of state secretary and later, head of the chancellery.
In 2005 he became foreign minister in the first grand coalition under Chancellor Merkel. Later, Steinmeier was Vice Chancellor – and also SPD candidate for the chancellorship during the federal elections in 2009.
The SPD lost the election. Many blamed this on Steinmeier's lack of accessibility to the public. Steinmeier has never been considered the casual type, but in the nebulous games of international diplomacy he cuts a good figure thanks to his tenacity and overview.
After the 2013 elections that resulted in a renewed grand coalition between the CDU and SPD, Steinmeier returned to the foreign ministry. He is considered one of the most significant representatives of German foreign policy of the last decades, alongside such luminaries as Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
Steinmeier was born in Detmold, North Rhine-Westphalia on January 5, 1956. He is married to a judge for administrative law, Elke Büdenbender. They have an adult daughter, who is currently studying at university. In 2010, when he served as SPD parliamentary party leader, Steinmeier's private life garnered public attention. He took a break from politics in order to donate a kidney to his seriously ill wife. This earned him much public respect and approval, irrespective of the strong personal reasons he had for this decision.
Merkel: a “decision of reason”
Even representatives of the CDU's conservative Bavarian sister party, the CSU, have praised the new federal president. Vice State Premier of Bavaria, Ilse Aigner, called the SPD man “a good candidate”. The leading EU parliamentarian for the CSU, Manfred Weber, expects that Steinmeier will provide continuity: “Germany needs strong leadership, especially in the current situation,” he said.
It seems the message behind his nomination is that Steinmeier is supposed to serve as a stabilizing anchor against disorder and instability. This is also the message that the chancellor herself has sent. Merkel called the choice of Steinmeier for president a “decision of reason”. The majority of Germans are likely to support this rational decision.