Berlin: Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a humiliating blow Wednesday after her candidate for German president failed to secure an absolute majority in a second round of voting in a special assembly.
Christian Wulff fell eight votes short of an absolute majority in an assembly of MPs and public figures even though Merkel`s coalition had a majority on paper. In the first round he was 23 short.
Earlier, Merkel`s conservative candidate failed to win an absolute majority in the first round of Germany`s presidential election on Wednesday, forcing the vote into a second round.
Merkel desperately needs a clear victory in the federal assembly that elects the head of state to boost her authority after a series of poor showings in opinion polls and setbacks including the resignation of Horst Koehler as president in May.
Her center-right coalition`s candidate, Christian Wulff, went into the contest with an absolute majority on paper. But the center-left`s candidate, popular civil rights activist and Protestant Pastor Joachim Gauck, has strong cross-party appeal.
The ruling coalition has 644 seats in the special assembly, well over the 623 needed for an absolute majority, but only 600 voted on the first ballot for Wulff, meaning that some on the government benches voted for the opposition candidate.
"It is more exciting than anyone expected. It looks like a lot of people wanted to send Merkel a message," said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, parliamentary leader of the opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Gauck scored 499 votes -- 39 more than the number of Social Democratic and Green assembly members -- and leftist Luc Jochimsen won 126 votes.
The assembly electing the largely ceremonial head of state was due to vote again shortly. If it goes to a third round, only a simple majority is needed to win.
If Wulff needs three rounds to win, it would be an embarrassment for Merkel at a moment when her nine month-old coalition looks weak, her ratings in polls are at record lows and her leadership in the euro zone crisis, and recent austerity drive, have been criticized.
Merkel, 55, chose an apparently safe candidate with less popular appeal than Gauck. Wulff, 51, the state premier of Lower Saxony, was once seen as a future chancellor, but ruled himself out in 2008 by saying he was not enough of an "alpha male."
Gauck, 70, is a non-partisan figure with broad appeal for his stand against the communist regime in former East Germany. From 1990 to 2000 he ran a commission investigating the role of the Stasi secret police.
Slap In The Face
The assembly`s 1,244 delegates are split between members of the lower house of parliament and delegates from the 16 federal states including showbusiness and sports personalities.
Merkel and her main coalition ally Guido Westerwelle of the Free Democrats (FDP) have endured weeks of negative publicity, prompting speculation the secret ballot could see members of the center right giving vent to disenchantment with the leadership.
However, the size of the rebellion was a shock, said Gerd Langguth, political scientist at the University of Bonn.
"That was a big slap in the face," he said. "I did not expect that many to vote against her."
But the FDP`s Development Minister Dirk Niebel said the government candidate would win through in the end.
"There is nothing unusual about some members wanting to settle old scores in the first round of voting," said FDP`s Dirk Niebel, who is development minister. "But I can assure you at the end of the day Wulff will be elected president."
Defeat in the presidential contest could even prompt talk of Merkel being replaced, at a moment when Europe is looking to Germany to help lead it out of recession and financial crisis.