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ARKIB : 24/05/2004

Ex-IMF chief Koehler elected new German president

BERLIN May 23 - Former IMF head Horst Koehler was elected Germany's ninth post-war president by a special federal assembly on Sunday in a ballot marred by a row over a Nazi-era judge who sentenced World War Two deserters to death.

Koehler, who quit as managing director of the International Monetary Fund in March to run for the largely ceremonial office, won narrowly with 604 votes from the 1,204-member assembly.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's candidate Gesine Schwan, who got 589 votes and at least seven from Koehler's side, was beaten in what the opposition hope will be a harbinger for ousting the Social Democrat-Greens government in a 2006 General election.

The vote was tarnished by controversy over the participation of Christian Democrat delegate Hans Filbinger, a Third Reich naval judge who ordered the 1945 execution of a German sailor who tried to flee from German-occupied Norway. He also issued death sentences in absentia for two others who fled to Sweden.

Filbinger, 90, ignored pleas from Schroeder's government and Jewish leaders to bow out. In 1978 Filbinger was forced to quit as Baden-Wuerttemberg state premier when his Nazi past surfaced.

Koehler, who headed the IMF in Washington for four years and led the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London before that, was the nominated by the opposition Christian Democrats and their Free Democrats allies.

Koehler, 61, succeeds Johannes Rau in the office with little executive power but as head of state is as close as Germany gets to royalty since its monarchy was abolished. Rau did not seek a second term after the SPD and Greens lost the majority in the federal assembly that meets every five years in the Reichstag.

``I return home to Germany after living abroad for six years with joy and gratitude,'' said Koehler, whose decision to leave the IMF for the job with little power was surprising. ``Germany has given me a lot and I want to give some of that back now.''

German presidents have no real political power, but past holders of the post, such as Richard von Weizsaecker, have built the office into one seen as a moral authority for the nation, stirring reflection and debate through their speeches.

``I love Germany,'' he added, a seldom-heard remark in a land uncomfortable with national identity because of its Nazi past that sent a hush through the packed Reichstag chamber.

Koehler wasted no time getting to work, telling the federal assembly moments after the unexpectedly narrow victory that he would push loudly for bolder economic reforms.

``I can't hide my concerns about our economy,'' he said, pointedly adding he was a trained economist and planned to use his experience in the new office. ``Germany has to fight for its position in the world in the 21st century. Patriotism and openness to the world are not conflicting aims.''

Koehler needed 603 votes in the assembly made up of parliament members and delegates from the 16 federal states. The CDU and FDP had 622 delegates while the SPD-Greens had 549. Six votes were invalid and nine abstained - meaning at least seven, and as many as 18, CDU-FDP delegates voted for Schwan.

Even though the president's powers are limited - a deliberate post-war reaction to the failures of the Weimar Republic that led to Hitler's rise - the office is still coveted by parties jostling to control the prestigious post.

The president sends a representative to cabinet meetings - which will be an unpleasant prospect for Schroeder.

Koehler, a respected global economic policy-maker, has a reputation as a driven taskmaster with an undiplomatic style. He was born in Skierbieszow in eastern Poland on February 22, 1943, to a farming family from Romania who fled to Germany at the war's end.

As deputy finance minister under ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Koehler played a key role in bringing the deutschemark to East Germany after the communist regime collapsed in 1990. He helped negotiate the Maastricht Treaty on European monetary union and for years was Kohl's ``sherpa'' at international summits. - Reuters

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