'Humiliated' Merkel's pick for president finally approved

30th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a blow to her authority Wednesday as her pick for president needed three voting rounds to win election after a rebellion in her ruling coalition.

Christian Wulff, 51, a conservative Merkel ally who once described himself as no "alpha male," secured 625 votes in a special electoral assembly, enough to become Germany's youngest-ever president.

His election was greeted by huge cheers from Merkel supporters after the longest presidential vote in German history, stretching into around nine hours.

But in what business daily Handelsblatt dubbed a "debacle" and a "first vote of no-confidence" in the weakened Merkel, Wulff failed to win enough votes in the first two voting rounds despite her coalition's majority.

Bild, the mass-circulation daily, which had billed the election as a "vote of destiny" for the weakened chancellor and her unpopular government, called the result a "sensation" and a "massive slap for the ruling coalition."

Influential weekly Die Zeit called the result a "humiliation" for Merkel's coalition while Tagesspiegel daily described the vote as a "putsch" against the chancellor during what it termed the "day of the long knives."

Spiegel magazine said on its website it was "Merkel's biggest failure."

After the first two embarrassing voting rounds, the third became a battle for the political future of Merkel, four times named the world's most powerful woman by Forbes Magazine.

A recent poll in Bild showed 48 percent of Germans wanted her to throw in the towel if her man had lost the vote, compared to 30 percent who believed she should soldier on.

She was reduced on Wednesday to making a last-ditch "heartfelt request" and employing a World Cup football analogy.

"We have had the Serbia game. Now we've got the England game. Let's do the right thing," Merkel said, according to Bild. Germany lost 1-0 to Serbia but bounced back to hammer England 4-1.

Her fiasco was beamed onto big screens outside the German parliament. Hundreds of people followed events. "It's as exciting as the World Cup," said one observer speaking to ARD television.

"It is a psychological defeat and a loss of prestige for Merkel," political expert Nils Diederich told AFP.

"The coalition has clearly failed to give a show of unity and of the new start so badly needed to escape from the slump it has been in for weeks," said political scientist Oskar Niedermayer from Berlin's Free University.

Wulff's rival, Joachim Gauck, 70, a charismatic former pastor and East German dissident won 494 votes in the nail-biting third round.

He appeared to be fighting back tears during a lengthy standing ovation from his supporters when his vote was announced.

Polls suggested he would also have won a popular vote.

There were 121 abstentions.

The headache of finding a new president was foisted upon Merkel by the shock resignation of former president Horst Koehler on May 31 after he appeared to suggest German troops abroad were defending Berlin's economic interests.

It caps a rough few months for Merkel, 55, after she won a second term at the helm of Europe's top economy in September at the head of a new-look coalition more to her liking than her previous tie-up.

She has seen her popularity nosedive over her handling of the eurozone crisis and has come under fire for plans to slash government spending by more than 80 billion euros (100 billion euros) over the next four years.

The job of president is largely symbolic in Germany, as the head of state serves as a kind of moral arbiter. But Koehler was popular, and Germans do care about who represents them as a shadow leader behind Merkel.

Since 2003, the twice-married Wulff has governed the state of Lower Saxony, home to Europe's biggest carmaker Volkswagen, in which the state has a controversial blocking minority.

© 2010 AFP

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