Challenge for Merkel as Germany elects President

"Angela Merkel is in the midst of her political career`s worst crisis."

Berlin: Germany’s President traditionally has little political influence but the election Wednesday of a new head of state has turned into a challenge for Chancellor Angela Merkel`s troubled government.
Merkel`s center-right coalition has struggled since it took office in October — hit by constant squabbling over policy and forced by the eurozone debt crisis to push through an austerity drive and unpopular rescue packages for Germany`s European partners.

The contest for the presidency, a largely ceremonial but symbolically important job, has added another layer to its troubles — fueling speculation in recent weeks that a loss for Merkel`s candidate could push it to the brink of collapse.

"Angela Merkel is in the midst of her political career`s worst crisis," political scientist Gerd Langguth wrote in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper last weekend.

That crisis climaxed when President Horst Koehler, nominated by Merkel in 2004, abruptly stepped down May 31. Koehler`s move mystified many; he said only that he felt unduly criticized for an interview he gave on the German military`s role abroad.

In any case, the loss of a president whom she chose and who was only one year into his second five-year term was seen as a major blow to Merkel, adding to her own bumpy second-term start.

"The unpopular Greece-euro decisions ... and the budget cuts, the disappearance of a President — handling this would be difficult for anyone," Langguth wrote.

"And this week, the threat of an unpredictable secret presidential ballot comes on top of it all," said Langguth, who has published biographies on both Merkel and Koehler. The German president is elected by a special assembly of 1,244 representatives — half federal lawmakers, the other half nominated by state parliaments.

On paper, Merkel`s coalition has a comfortable majority, with 644 seats. Leaders of her coalition agreed on a joint candidate — Lower Saxony state governor Christian Wulff, 51, a deputy leader of her conservative party.

Still, Merkel`s coalition has struggled to close ranks in the face of a challenge from an opposition candidate widely viewed as more exciting than clean-cut career politician Wulff, and it risks losing face in Wednesday`s vote.

Some center-right assembly members have said they think rival Joachim Gauck, 70, is a better candidate — a widely respected former East German human rights activist who might have more to offer in terms of moral authority than Wulff.

Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle said Monday that there are only three to five dissenters, but the opposition Social Democrats and Greens are working hard to drum up support for Gauck.

"I think there could be enough (support) for Gauck," Greens parliamentary leader Renate Kuenast said on German radio.

The Social Democrats and Greens have only 462 seats and are far from their own majority, but uncertainty in the secret ballot is enough to create anxiety. The third opposition group, the Left Party, has nominated little-known lawmaker Luc Jochimsen. Many of its members have little time for Gauck, who after reunification oversaw the files of East Germany`s secret police, but may be tempted to back him to embarrass Merkel.

Failing to drum up full support for Wulff might undermine Merkel`s authority further, said Nils Diederich, a political scientist at Berlin`s Free University. "It is a symbolic competition, and it is important for the coalition to come in first," he said.

Merkel`s success or failure will likely be measured by the number of ballots it takes to elect Wulff. A president can be elected by simple majority if no one wins an absolute majority in the first two ballots.

If a second or third ballot is needed, "that would be a small defeat for the coalition," Diederich said — but he added that, even then, Merkel likely wouldn`t resign. If, on the other hand, Merkel`s candidate wins in the first ballot, it might actually turn things around for her, Diederich added.

"If (Merkel) pushes this through, it will be marked off and over with."

Bureau Report

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