Presidential vote turns into humiliation for Merkel
What should have been a routine election of a new German president turned into a debacle for Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday as members of her coalition broke ranks and spurned her candidate.
In dramatic scenes, conservative Christian Wulff fell eight votes short of an absolute majority in a second round of voting in an assembly of MPs and public figures, after missing by 23 in the first round.
Merkel's coalition held on paper more than enough votes in the secret ballot.
The election was going to a humiliating and nail-biting third round for Merkel when an absolute majority is no longer required and the candidate with the most votes wins.
Wulff, 51, was widely expected to win the third round, but the fact that some members of her centre-right coalition twice voted against her man dealt a hefty blow to the authority of what Forbes magazine called the most powerful woman on the planet.
If the main opposition candidate, the popular former East German dissident Joachim Gauck, were to pull off a shock but not impossible victory, Merkel's very political future could be on the line.
A recent poll in Bild showed 48 percent of Germans wanted her to throw in the towel if this happened, compared to 30 percent who believed she should soldier on.
"The coalition has clearly failed to give a show of unity and of the new start that is so badly needed to escape from the slump it has been in for weeks," Oskar Niedermayer from Berlin's Free University said.
Business daily Handelsblatt described the "debacle" as Merkel's "first vote of no confidence."
Gauck, the candidate of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, won 490 votes in the second round, meaning that 30 members of the assembly who were not members of the Greens or the SPD voted for him.
In the first round he scored 499 votes. Lukrezia Jochimsen from the far-left Die Linke party won 123, three fewer than in the first round, while a far-right candidate notched up an unchanged three votes.
If Gauck wins, Merkel would be "seriously damaged," Bild said.
The headache of finding a new president was foisted upon Merkel by the shock resignation of Horst Koehler on May 31 after he appeared to suggest German troops abroad were defending Berlin's economic interests.
It caps a rough-and-tumble 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