Officially, President Steinmeier is resting his SPD membership. But the SPD’s party statute doesn’t even mention rest mode.
Only the bullets are still shining red. Frank-Walter Steinmeier after his Christmas speech Photo: reuters
The word "rest" has a positive ring to it. Stressed-out people look forward to resting, daycare teachers like quiet children – and a German president lets his party membership rest. That sounds statesmanlike: on the one hand, he keeps a distinguished distance from party politics, but on the other hand, he doesn’t simply resign from a party without a fuss. And it sounds sovereign, just like an experienced cook lets the meat rest first – yes, exactly – instead of working on it hectically.
The only problem is that you can’t let a party membership rest. When, after the failure of the Jamaica explorations, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier publicly slapped SPD leader Martin Schulz for not being able to form a grand coalition with him, he received praise across the media: Steinmeier, a non-partisan federal president who has freed himself from his party and proves this by suspending his membership.
However, the SPD’s party statute does not recognize voluntary "retirement" of a party membership – nor do the statutes of the CDU and FDP. The three parties have provided all Federal Presidents since 1949, only Joachim Gauck was a non-party member. One relinquishes one’s party membership either by resignation, expulsion or death. The SPD knows the temporary suspension of "individual or all rights" from party membership as a form of regulatory measure. A prominent example is Sebastian Edathy, whose rights are currently suspended for possessing child pornography. The CDU is more financially oriented: Here, rights can be suspended if the member is "culpably in arrears with his contribution payments for more than six months."
The SPD answers the taz’s inquiry about Steinmeier’s party status tight-lipped: "In view of the prominent office of the Federal President, the suspension of Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s SPD membership was made possible as an exceptional case," says a spokesman. The Office of the Federal President explains that Steinmeier’s suspension follows a "presidential practice" of former federal presidents. "In practice, this means above all that he will not participate in events of the former party or any party at all or its subdivisions, nor will he pay a membership fee to a party," Steinmeier’s spokeswoman says.
"That just sounds stupid"
But how does "dormancy" work in a party like the SPD, where statutes and rules play a big role? If one listens into the depths of the Brandenburg state association – where Steinmeier is registered – one hears from one who is close to it the assumption that Steinmeier has de facto left – or has let himself leave. Already practically it does not go differently, if one pays no more contributions. "But if a Federal President officially resigns from his party, it just sounds stupid," they say. One may not quote the source by name, just as in general all representatives of the parties, with which one talks, separate embarrassingly exactly between official linguistic regulation and reality behind the scenes.
Federal President Christian Wulff left the CDU at the time without any ifs or buts – and later rejoined it
Alexander Thiele, a constitutional law expert at the University of Gottingen, believes that the bending of the rules on dormant membership is superfluous. "You can hardly base the question of whether a federal president keeps his distance from party politics on the formal criterion of party membership. It depends on the concrete actions of the person," he says. Alexander Thiele’s verdict is unambiguous: "Behind the view that a federal president should keep his membership in a party at rest lies the misguided expectation of an apolitical president. A federal president cannot be neutral, simply because of the election procedure: after all, the representatives of the parties sit in the Federal Assembly."
It is striking that both the SPD and the Office of the Federal President refer to historical models. All other federal presidents have done the same, they say. This interpretation is demonstrably false. Federal President Christian Wulff left the CDU at the time without any ifs or buts. In response to an inquiry, he wrote to the site: "After my election as Federal President on 30 September, I left the CDU. June 2010, I wanted to let the membership rest, but I found out that this possibility does not exist according to the statutes. Therefore, I resigned and rejoined after my time as Federal President. Specifically, I rejoined at the beginning of March 2014, immediately after my acquittal." Wulff had been under investigation for accepting benefits.
The historical role models
Richard von Weizsacker, who always kept his distance from the CDU and was conspicuous for his sharp criticism of the party during his second term as German president in the early 1990s, also resigned. Unlike Wulff, he did not rejoin the party later on because his relationship with party chairman Helmut Kohl had completely broken down. The CDU communicated things differently to the outside world after he left office in 1994. It was said that he had suspended his membership.
Federal President Horst Kohler did not resign from the CDU – he declared his membership dormant and stopped paying his dues, his office explains. In this way, his status could be formally recorded correctly – because if you don’t pay your dues in the CDU, your rights are suspended.
The FDP took it easy with its newly elected Federal President Walter Scheel in 1974, according to board minutes made available by the "Archive of Liberalism" of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which is close to the FDP. At a meeting in June 1974, the designated party chairman Hans-Dietrich Genscher emphasized Scheel’s connection to the FDP: "And therefore I say: Your place in the FDP, however, dear Walter Scheel, is not bound to any time, to any election, to any formality. Nor of the fact that – as the saying goes – your membership is currently dormant." As the saying goes – the dormancy of Scheel’s membership was probably more a tongue-in-cheek matter than formally recorded. After all, Scheel was FDP leader until his election.
Constitutional lawyer Thiele sees no legal problem with parties bending their statutes with the "dormant" construct: "Under customary law, it would probably be permissible for a federal president to have his membership dormant, even if this is not provided for in the party statutes in this form."
It remains open when Frank-Walter Steinmeier will receive the golden badge of honor for 50 years of SPD party membership. If his rest period is counted, he will get it pinned in 2025. If the five years are not counted, he will have to wait until 2030.