German presidential vote stress-tests Merkel camp
30.06.10 @ 11:26
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her wobbly coalition face a political stress test on Wednesday when delegates from the regions and federal parliament are electing the country's next president. The left-wing opposition has put forward a strong candidate against the right's front-runner.
Amid plunging popularity rates, rebellious coalition members and strong criticism from former chancellors over the way she has managed the euro-crisis, Ms Merkel cannot politically afford for her candidate, Christian Wulff, to lose the presidential elections.
But by picking Mr Wulff, an uninspiring party loyalist, Ms Merkel has not done herself any favours. His nomination came as a surprise and as an expression of internal political calculations instead of giving a chance to labour minister Ursula von der Leyen, who would have become the first female president of the country.
Ms Merkel's calculations were dealt a blow when the Greens and Social Democrats put forward their candidate, Joachim Gauck, a pastor from the former East Germany and a personal friend of the chancellor, well-respected for his contribution to the German re-unification.
Several delegates from Ms Merkel's coalition have publicly stated their admiration for Mr Gauck, who was the custodian of the secret police (Stasi) archive after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The fact that he is a member of no political party also adds to his perceived suitability for the presidency, a largely ceremonial post in Germany.
His campaign is focussing on 'freedom' and is seen as a figure capable of uniting people from across the political spectrum.
"Germans have too many reasons for mistrust right now," Mr Gauck told reporters in Berlin earlier this month. "They have a yearning for credibility and they want to have credible people in top positions in politics," he added.
The German constitution allows the 1,244 delegates to vote freely, although in practice, they have always voted along party lines. Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, and their free-market Liberal junior coalition partner, the Free Democrat Party (FDP), have a majority of 21 in the special assembly.
Mr Wulff is expected to be elected by a razor-thin margin in a second or even a third round of voting, with several delegates from the Merkel camp voting in favour of Mr Gauck. Regional delegates from the southern state of Baden-Württemberg are also likely to vote against Mr Wulff over his role in 2007 in fighting off a takeover of Volkswagen, the motor manufacturer based in Lower Saxony.
The snap elections were triggered by the unexpected resignation of Horst Koehler in May, after he said that German military deployment is necessary to protect national economic interests, a phrasing that produced criticism that he supported 'gunboat diplomacy'.
The former head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading Christian Democrat, Mr Koehler resigned just as Ms Merkel was struggling to impose party discipline for massive spending cuts, which came on top of the highly unpopular Greek and euro-zone bailouts, to which Germany is the biggest contributor.
Internal and external criticism of the chancellor has reached record levels in the past months. Even former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, 92 years old, has attacked Ms Merkel for her handling of European affairs.
He spoke of European policy under Ms Merkel as having a tendency towards "Wilhelmine pomposity," a reference to the aggressive German foreign policy under successive Kaiser Wilhelms until 1918.
Ms Merkel drew criticism also from the US billionaire and investments guru George Soros, who accused Germany of being so intent on handling the Maastricht Treaty as if it were "scripture" that it risked driving the eurozone to deflation.
"With its insistence on pro-cyclical policy, Germany is endangering the European Union. I realise this is a grave accusation but I'm afraid it's justified," said Mr Soros in a speech at the Humboldt University in Berlin on 23 June.
The almost daily criticism of Ms Merkel in recent months represents a marked turnaround from when she became Germany's leader in 2005.
During her first years as a chancellor, she was acclaimed as "Frau Europa", helping to seal a deal on the bloc's EU budget and the Lisbon Treaty. But she is now increasingly seen as a stumbling bloc in the response to the economic and financial crisis.