Merkel braces for presidential 'vote of destiny'
Embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hoping Wednesday to pull her shaky second term back from the brink as she braced for a presidential vote seen as a crucial test of her authority.
The normally straightforward appointment of the country's largely ceremonial head of state has become what the Bild daily called a "vote of destiny" as Merkel battles to get her pick, Christian Wulff, elected by a special assembly.
On paper at least, Wulff, 51, a close ally of the chancellor, is strong favourite as Merkel's ruling coalition holds a majority in the special body of 1,244 parliamentary deputies and public figures.
But Wulff's rival, former East German dissident Joachim Gauck, enjoys more public support and speculation has been rife that the charismatic 70-year-old former pastor could pull off a major shock and precipitate a political crisis.
Commentators said that defeat for Wulff and hence for Merkel, whose popularity has plunged since re-election in September amid squabbling within her coalition and her handling of the eurozone crisis, would be catastrophic.
"If Wulff were to lose, it would surely amount to an enormous loss of face," political scientist Nils Diederich of Berlin's Free University, told AFP.
"But despite the resentment the government has created in recent months, I don't think there are enough people breaking ranks to endanger Wulff's election," he added.
And the stakes could hardly be higher for Merkel, 55, who has topped the Forbes magazine list of the world's most powerful woman four consecutive times.
A recent poll for the influential mass circulation Bild daily showed 48 percent of Germans wanted her to step down if her man was not selected, compared to 30 percent who believed she should soldier on.
The headache was foisted upon Merkel by the shock resignation of former president Horst Koehler, who stepped down on May 31 after appearing to suggest German troops abroad were defending Berlin's economic interests.
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, Wulff has governed the state of Lower Saxony, home to automaker Volkswagen. He would become Germany's youngest-ever president if elected.
Favourite to take over from Wulff in Lower Saxony is David McAllister, who is half Scottish.
The day began with a church service in Berlin and the secret ballot was due to begin at 1000 GMT with the results expected around 1215 GMT.
If the first round of voting does not produce a clear winner, the candidate with the fewest votes drops out and further rounds of voting occur until someone wins a simple majority.
"From tomorrow onwards, possibly, we're going to be governed," said the Berliner Zeitung newspaper on the eve of the vote.
"The election of the federal president is supposed to give the coalition a new start -- there have been quite a few already since it began its work eight months ago."
© 2010 AFP