Merkel taps potential challenger as German president

3rd June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday she had chosen erstwhile rival and conservative state premier Christian Wulff as her candidate to become the next German president.

Merkel, flanked by Wulff and officials from her centre-right coalition, said consensus had emerged around the leader of Lower Saxony for the next head of state to help lead Germany through a time of economic turmoil.

"I see him as a wonderful future president," she said.

"It pleases me in particular that he is prepared to assume responsibility for our country in this time, in the situation in which we find ourselves, in a major global economic crisis, in a time in which we are dealing with the future of Europe."

Germany has until June 30 to find a new president, whose job is largely ceremonial but who acts as a kind of national moral arbiter, to replace Horst Koehler, who resigned abruptly Monday.

The chancellor's ruling coalition holds a majority in a special assembly made up of parliamentary deputies and public figures that will elect the new president, meaning that Wulff is virtually guaranteed election.

Merkel was under pressure to find an acceptable choice quickly and decisively, as Koehler's sudden departure had created the image of disarray in her conservative ranks amid persistent criticism at home and abroad about her own leadership.

The preternaturally youthful Wulff, 50, has governed the state of Lower Saxony, home to automaker Volkswagen, since 2003 and would be Germany's youngest-ever president.

He thanked Merkel's coalition for its support and said he would aim to reach out to all Germans.

"I look forward to assuming this responsibility," Wulff said. "I think one can bring people together, do something for the cohesiveness of our society, give people encouragement and create optimism in difficult times."

A high-profile perch, Lower Saxony was seen as a potential launch pad for Wulff to pose a challenge to a politically weakened Merkel, who critics say has dithered during the euro crisis.

If the trained lawyer becomes president, he would be effectively neutralised as a political challenger, at least for the five-year length of his term.

Earlier, speculation had centred on Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a popular mother of seven and a moderniser from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, but traditionalists reportedly torpedoed her bid.

The opposition meanwhile nominated Joachim Gauck, a 70-year-old former East German human rights activist and the former director of the vast archives left behind by the Stasi, the despised communist secret police.

But his bid was seen as hopeless due to the centre-right majority.

Koehler's resignation, which was the latest in a string of setbacks to Merkel's second term, came after he appeared to suggest that Germany's overseas military operations were in part commercially motivated.

© 2010 AFP

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