Weakened Merkel looks to end of trying presidential campaign

28th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

If Germans could choose their next president, they would overwhelmingly elect a former East German dissident this week and reject Chancellor Angela Merkel's hand-picked candidate for head of state.

But the embattled Merkel, who has been caught in a downward spiral in the polls, is expected to see her man Christian Wulff move in to Berlin's Bellevue Palace after a special representative body casts its ballots Wednesday.

Her supporters hope a victory by Wulff, an affable but relatively colourless conservative state leader over the freedom-fighting pastor Joachim Gauck, will mark a turning point for Merkel, if only by ending an embarrassing campaign.

"It is true: this government seems repugnant," the influential weekly Die Zeit said in a front-page editorial.

"That is why, and the only reason why, Christian Wulff has had such a rough ride in the weeks before the presidential election."

Merkel, under fire for her hesitant handling of the eurozone crisis and relentless squabbling in her centre-right coalition, tapped Wulff as her choice to replace Horst Koehler, who resigned abruptly last month.

The former International Monetary Fund chief had faced a firestorm of criticism when he suggested that German troops deployed overseas might also be defending Berlin's economic interests.

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

A poll by the independent Forsa institute showed 32 percent supporting Wulff compared with 42 percent for the charismatic 70-year-old Gauck, dubbed "Grandpa Obama" by the online edition of the news weekly Der Spiegel.

But the chancellor's ruling coalition holds a majority in the assembly made up of parliamentary deputies and public figures that will elect the new president, meaning that Wulff, 51, is the clear favourite.

Because the opposition nominated rival candidates -- Gauck and lawmaker Lukrezia Jochimsen for the far-left Die Linke -- neither is seen as having a real chance.

But the trouble is that a few eastern members of the Free Democrats, junior partners in Merkel's ruling alliance, have come out in support of Gauck in an unseemly display of coalition infighting.

Pundits were saying earlier this month that Merkel's government could be on the line if Gauck managed to triumph over Wulff, but the alarm bells have largely gone quiet.

"If Wulff were to lose, it would surely amount to an enormous loss of face" for Merkel, political scientist Nils Diederich of Berlin's Free University, told AFP.

"But despite the resentments the government has created in recent months, I don't think there are enough people breaking ranks to endanger Wulff's election."

Merkel and Gauck, the former director of the vast archives left behind by the Stasi secret police, have known and respected each other for years as prominent Germans from the former communist east.

The pastor, a self-described "leftist liberal conservative", appeared horrified to have brought Merkel nearly to the brink with his nomination.

"I am appalled by this idea in the press that a successful candidacy on my part is an attack on the chancellor," he told foreign reporters this month.

But he said the next president would have to contend with a profound disappointment in Germany's democratic culture.

"The German people have a deep longing for credibility in politics."

© 2010 AFP

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