In my last post I approved of the German constitution’s design choice to have an apolitical head of state.
Once that design choice is made the question is how to choose that head of state. The obvious first idea is popular election. Some other parliamentary republics do it that way and it is a frequent reform proposal for Germany. Personally, although I want popular elections of the chancellor, I’m not that fond of a popularly elected president. Since he is supposed to be above politics there is nothing to campaign on. Candidates might try character assassination, but that doesn’t really comport with the dignity they should project after their election. So at best we would end up with campaigns devoid of any real content. A cynic might say that’s not so different from any other electoral campaign, but in this case it would be so by design.
The other extreme is not having elections at all and just making the office hereditary. That’s of course how a parliamentary monarchy works. It’s hard not to admire the stringency of that solution. A person can’t be more removed from democratic party politics than a king. But I don’t like that solution either. Equality is at the philosophical core of democracy and the head of state is highly symbolic. Making headship of the state a constitutional privilege of a family would basically mean the commonwealth would be denying itself. Also, royal families carry historical baggage that can seriously hinder their integrating function. The British monarchy, for example, is not all that successful in channeling the loyalty of Catholics.
That essentially leaves us with having the president elected by an other constitutional organ. In Germany that organ is the Federal Convention (Bundesversammlung). Consisting of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of members elected by the state parliaments, it is only convened for electing presidents. The state delegates are often celebrities reliable enough to vote for their parties candidate but not actively involved in professional politics. There is no debate. The result has of course been fixed in backroom deals weeks earlier. For example, the 15. federal convention meeting tomorrow will elect Joachim Gauck on the first ballot. In case you read German, I had a guest post on the genesis of that constitutional arrangement on a German blog when the last president was elected two years ago.
I don’t object to choosing the president by backroom deals. In fact, considering the person holding the office doesn’t matter that much but must seem visibly distant from political conflicts the moment they are elected, this most quiet method of selection is highly desirable. And having that deal followed by a highly formal election ceremony is probably good for such an intensely symbolical office.
What I do dislike about this system is the low majority requirement. On the first two ballots a candidate needs a majority to be elected. If the first two ballots are unsuccessful, a plurality suffices on the third one. Mostly this means a partisan backroom deal is sufficient. I would like to raise that to 2/3, so as to necessitate involvement of minority parties. By making it a matter requiring fairly broad agreement, I would hope to avoid some of the undignified partisan maneuvering that precedes most Federal Conventions.
Of course if the election required a super-majority there would need to be a plan for situations where it isn’t achieved. And that plan would have to be sufficiently deterrent to avoid triggering it on purpose. I’ll admit some attraction to the medieval solution of starving the convention until they agree, but that probably would go too far. Perhaps a miselection could simply trigger a new convention. I gather that is how modern-day American mistrials by jury are dealt with. Or maybe the delegates could face a monetary fine for reaching later ballots with lower majority requirements.
Practically speaking, it’s of course moot, because nobody is interested in following my constitutional advice.