Merkel suffers presidential vote setback
Embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel was on tenterhooks Wednesday as her candidate for president failed to secure enough support in the first round of voting in a special assembly.
Merkel, and her candidate Christian Wulff, faced an agonising second round of secret ballots in what was billed as a "vote of destiny" for the weakened chancellor and her unpopular government.
Wulff, 51, secured 600 votes in the special electoral college of 1,244 parliamentary deputies and public figures, well short of the majority needed.
Joachim Gauck, 70, his rival for the largely ceremonial position of president, won 499 votes. Lukrezia Jochimsen from the far-left Die Linke party won 126 ballots. A far-right candidate won three votes and 13 abstained.
On paper at least, Wulff, a close ally of the chancellor, should have won the vote easily as Merkel's coalition held a majority -- 644 seats -- in the electoral college.
Influential mass circulation daily Bild described the result as a "sensation" and said it demonstrated a rebellion within Merkel's coalition.
"Wulff's failure in the first round of voting shows the black-yellow camp is no longer united," the paper said, referring to the colours of the parties in Merkel's coalition.
However, Wulff is still likely to win election, but the first-round failure is a further blow to Merkel who has come under intense pressure amid internal squabbling and a much-criticised reaction to the eurozone economic crisis.
If Gauck, a charismatic former East German dissident, were to pull off a major political shock and win the election, it could spell the beginning of the end for Merkel.
A recent poll in Bild 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.
She would be "seriously damaged," Bild said, adding: "Some experts believe that the ... coalition would collapse in this case."
"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.
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.
There was no immediate indication when the results of the second round would become known.
© 2010 AFP