By Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) – Former finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was elected speaker of Germany’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday, a position from which he will try to impose discipline on far-right lawmakers who opposed his appointment.
Schaeuble won 501 of 705 votes from fellow lawmakers for the post of Bundestag president, or speaker. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was elected to the parliament for the first time last month, immediately set the stage for further clashes.
To the alarm of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, the anti-immigration AfD is now the third largest party in the Bundestag. The highly experienced Schaeuble, 75, is one of Germany’s most powerful politicians and seen as well qualified to tame recalcitrant lawmakers.
In an inaugural Bundestag session following the Sept. 24 federal election, the AfD – the first far-right party to enter parliament in more than half a century – made clear its intention to shake up German politics on the national stage.
“The people have decided, now a new era begins,” AfD parliamentary leader Bernd Baumann told the chamber.
In his maiden speech as Bundestag president, Schaeuble shot back: “Nobody on their own represents the people.”
“The way we speak to each other here can set an example for debate in society,” he said, adding: “I am looking forward to the new challenges.”
By agreeing to move to the Bundestag, Schaeuble has opened the way for the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) to take over his powerful ministry, helping to unblock talks on a new three-way coalition likely also to include the Greens.
FDP leader Christian Lindner told broadcaster n-tv that Schaeuble was an extraordinary figure in German politics:
“He has gravitas, a clear position and a natural authority that will be good to have in a parliament has just become more diverse, and where some manners may be called into question.”
The AfD’s Baumann shocked other lawmakers by suggesting that they had used Nazi-era tactics to prevent an AfD member from taking a top post in parliament. FDP politician Marco Buschmann said the comments were “beyond tasteless.”
After opposing Schaeuble’s Bundestag appointment, the AfD is set to clash with other parties over its nomination for one of six vice presidents – one from each party group.
VICE PRESIDENT ROW
For its vice president, the AfD has nominated Albrecht Glaser, 75, who has called Islam a political ideology rather than a religion, and said Muslims should not have the right to freedom of religion as Islam did not respect that freedom.
The Social Democrats, Greens, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the radical Left Party have spoken out against Glaser’s nomination.
Senior members of Merkel’s conservative bloc have also said they will not support Glaser, though party lawmakers will be free to choose how they vote.
Later on Tuesday, the conservatives, FDP and Greens will convene for talks on forming a three-way coalition that is untested at national level.
Bundestag vice presidents chair sessions, set the agenda for parliamentary business and call lawmakers to order.
The convention that each party in parliament is entitled to one vice speaker is not written into the constitution, and parliamentary business can continue if the AfD is unable to get Glaser elected or find a replacement.
In the past, a party has had to nominate a second choice when its first choice was not elected. However, if the AfD failed to select any lawmaker who can win the role, it would be unprecedented.
Should Glaser fail to be elected a vice president in three rounds on Tuesday, voting will be postponed. A member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) for 40 years, Glaser quit the party in 2012 and helped to found the AfD in 2013.
The opposition to his nomination demonstrates the difficulties the AfD may face in pushing its agenda – ranging from immigration and an insistence that Islam does not belong in Germany to problems it sees in the euro zone.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter Graff, John Stonestreet and Giles Elgood)