Germany's Social Democrats nominated a close associate of outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as the country's next foreign minister, raising questions about how much change conservative chancellor-designate Angela Merkel will bring to foreign policy.
Frank Walter Steinmeier, who is Schroeder's chief of staff, was chosen by his party colleagues for the post, one of eight the party has in the new Cabinet under a power-sharing deal struck with Merkel.
In another top pick, Social Democratic Party chairman Franz Muentefering will serve as Germany's vice chancellor and labor minister, party officials said.
Steinmeier, a 49-year-old lawyer, has been a powerful but relatively low-profile figure in Schroeder's seven-year government. He has worked for Schroeder since 1991, when Schroeder was governor of Lower Saxony, and moved with Schroeder to the chancellery in Berlin in 1998 as an aide, taking the chief of staff job in 1999.
Party chief Muentefering acknowledged some would be unfamiliar with Steinmeier.
"I'm quite sure he has the knowledge and ability to deal with this difficult and complicated subject, and that he will represent our country well, and that this will soon dawn on all those who don't know him so well as a politician," Muentefering said.
Although his current job is not strictly a diplomatic post, it fell to Steinmeier to hear out then-US Ambassador Dan Coats in a 2002 meeting in which Coats expressed US concerns about Schroeder's campaign rhetoric against the possibility of war in Iraq.
The choice of a close Schroeder associate as foreign minister underscores the limits Merkel may face in putting her stamp on foreign policy. She has vowed to reinvigorate ties with the US frayed by Schroeder's opposition to the Iraq war, and to place less emphasis on Schroeder's close partnership with France. But she had to bargain away key ministries in order to get the Social Democrats to join in a coalition.
The nomination was "an excellent choice because Mr. Steinmeier, over the past seven years, has gained a lot of experience in foreign policy and he is certainly a person from whom to expect continuity in the positive sense of the word," Eberhard Sandschneider, a foreign-policy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said.
"I am quite confident that he will be able to convince his American partners that with a new government a new game is beginning and that Germany is serious in rebuilding trans-Atlantic relations," he added.
Steinmeier would take over from Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens. Fischer is leaving office along with Schroeder after the current coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens was ousted in the Sept. 18 parliamentary election. Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union also failed to win a majority for her preferred coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats. That has forced Germany's two largest parties of the right and left toward sharing power in a so-called "grand coalition."
They have agreed Merkel will be chancellor of a 16-member Cabinet divided equally between the two parties, with eight seats apiece. The conservatives are expected to make their nominations for their ministries, including defense and interior, on Monday.
The new government must be approved by party conventions after negotiations, expected to last until Nov. 12. Lawmakers must then elect Merkel in a vote in the new parliament.
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