- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

Horst Koehler, the economist who will become president of Germany on Thursday, hopes to bring an American sense of optimism to a country that suffers from a weak economy.

“Horst who?” was the headline in a major German national newspapers four months ago, when the center-right opposition Christian Democrats nominated Mr. Koehler for the largely ceremonial post. In May, a special national assembly endorsed him as president.

His low profile at home reflects the fact that he has spent the past six years abroad, including a four-year stint that ended in May as managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Taking over the presidency, the 61-year-old Mr. Koehler will be the head of a country that still ranks third in terms of total economic output and second in regard to world trade, but whose powerful economy has turned in a weak performance in the past decade.

The integration of the former East German economy demands annual transfers from west to east amounting to about $70 billion. The soaring national debt hit an all-time high of $100 billion last year. In addition, Germany has an aging population and an unemployment rate of almost 10 percent.

Whether Mr. Koehler actually will have a major impact on the country’s lagging economy will depend largely on how he copes with the limits of his office.

“Koehler’s main chance of improving the economic situation in Germany lies in initiating a change of the public climate,” said Robert Bergmann, the Washington representative of German Industry and Trade.

Mr. Koehler said that while living in the United States, he observed firsthand what his own country needs — “general optimism.”

In an interview with the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, he said Germans can learn “open-mindedness” from the Americans. Americans who unexpectedly lose their jobs take the initiative to find new work, he said, while too many Germans still rely on the state.

Mr. Koehler will be the ninth president of Germany and the first one without a long political background. He has served as president of the European Bank, president of the German Savings Bank Association and deputy minister of finance.

The new president was born into a peasant family in Nazi-occupied Poland during the World War II.

Known as an independent thinker and a plain speaker, he does not hide his training as an economist. In an interview with Die Zeit, he insisted that regulations on small businesses in eastern Germany should be “reduced significantly.”

Because the powerful position of the German president in the Weimar Republic had contributed to Adolf Hitler’s rise, the office was made mainly ceremonial after World War II. Today, German presidents nominate the chancellor to the parliament, sign all laws after deciding whether a bill has been passed and represent the country at many official functions abroad.

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