Germans pick president in historic vote today

May 23, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

BERLIN -- An electoral college of 1,324 parliamentarians and "ordinary citizens" will elect Germany's next federal president today in the country's first such election since the unification of the East and West four years ago.

The expected winner is Roman Herzog, the 60-year-old chief justice of Germany's constitutional court and a member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union.

Justice Herzog, who was once the interior minister for the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, is known as a law-and-order hard-liner who has mellowed somewhat in recent years.

His chief rival in today's voting will be Social Democrat Johannes Rau, a former bookseller and publisher who is now premier of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous in Germany.

Mr. Rau is known as an earnest, clean and moderate politician, and an official of the Lutheran Church. Germany's seventh president will have the difficult task of filling the shoes of outgoing President Richard von Weizsaecker, a respected statesman who embodies the way many Germans would like their country to be seen by the rest of the world.

Over the course of his two five-year terms, Mr. Weizsaecker elevated the German presidency from a powerless, largely ceremonial position into an influential office that provides moral ballast for the nation, much needed at a time of economic recession, high unemployment and serious social stress coming in the wake of unification.

Mr. Weizsaecker has pleased many Germans by speaking out candidly on such controversial topics as the hardships posed by joining the former Communist East to the prosperous West and Germany's continuing guilt in the Holocaust.

He has also earned high marks at home and abroad for attending memorial services for the victims of neo-Nazi attacks in Moelln and Solingen -- services snubbed by Mr. Kohl, who dismayed Germans by saying it wasn't necessary for the government to send a representative. Mr. Weizsaecker must retire when his second term ends June 30.

Justice Herzog is not the Christian Democrats' first choice for the presidency. Mr. Kohl had selected Steffen Heitmann, the ultraconservative justice minister for the eastern state of Saxony, but he was forced to withdraw amid controversy over his views on the role of women in society, on the rights and roles of foreigners in Germany and on Germany's World War II past.

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