updated 5/23/2004 8:55:41 AM ET 2004-05-23T12:55:41

Horst Koehler, a former head of the International Monetary Fund who has called for bolder economic reforms in Germany, was elected Sunday as the country’s ninth postwar president.

Koehler, nominated by opposition conservatives, defeated Gesine Schwan, a university professor backed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s government who sought to become Germany’s first female head of state.

Koehler, a 61-year-old finance expert, won by a vote of 604-589 in balloting by a special assembly of lawmakers and state delegates in Berlin’s Reichstag parliament building.

He replaces Johannes Rau, a member of Schroeder’s Social Democrats who is stepping down after a single five-year term. Rau made history in 2000 as the first German to give a speech in the Israeli parliament.

Germany’s presidency is largely ceremonial and nominally above politics, but incumbents have often influenced national policy debates and are considered a voice of moral authority.

Koehler held a series of finance posts in the German government, headed the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, then spent the past four years in Washington as the IMF’s managing director.

He quit the post when the center-right Christian Democrats and Free Democrats nominated him in March.

Largely unknown figure
Though he helped former Chancellor Helmut Kohl negotiate German reunification in 1990, Koehler was largely unknown to the general public before his nomination.

He has said that he wants to bring his experience in national and international affairs to the post, and has called on Germans to accept the need for economic change, cut bureaucracy more boldly and rely less on government as a way out of three years of economic stagnation.

The Christian Democrats, the main party backing him, are using the same themes to hammer Schroeder in opinion polls and have portrayed the presidential election as part of their campaign to unseat the chancellor in 2006.

Koehler echoed a widespread sentiment in Germany by criticizing U.S. policy in Iraq during the low-key presidential campaign.

He was quoted as telling a closed meeting of his political backers that the United States was “arrogant,” a remark he has not denied. He has criticized Washington for lacking a concept for “winning the peace” in Iraq.

Schwan, a longtime Social Democrat who heads a German-Polish university in the border town of Frankfurt an der Oder, has urged politicians cutting social programs — including Schroeder — to protect the most vulnerable members of society.

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