Merkel made to sweat in crunch presidential vote

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Embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a blow to her authority on Wednesday as members of her governing coalition broke ranks and secretly voted against her candidate for president.

In a confidential ballot, conservative Christian Wulff fell 23 votes short of an absolute majority in a special assembly made up of MPs and public figures even though Merkel's coalition had a majority on paper of 44.

"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," political scientist Oskar Niedermayer from Berlin's Free University said.

The result means that the election goes through to a nail-biting second round later on Wednesday in the 1,244-seat assembly in Berlin.

It may even go to what would be for Merkel a humiliating third round when an absolute majority is no longer required and the candidate with the most votes wins.

Wulff is widely expected to win eventually, but the fact that members of her centre-right coalition voted against her man is highly damaging for Forbes magazine's most powerful woman on the planet.

Business daily Handelsblatt described the "debacle" of the first round as Merkel's "first vote of no confidence."

Bild, the mass-circulation daily, which had billed the election as a "vote of destiny" for the weakened chancellor and her unpopular government, called the first-round result a "sensation."

If the main opposition candidate, the popular former East German dissident Joachim Gauck, pulls off a shock victory -- something which is not beyond the realms of possibility -- 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.

Gauck, the candidate of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, won 499 votes, meaning that 39 members of the assembly who were not members of the Greens or the SPD voted for him.

Lukrezia Jochimsen from the far-left Die Linke party won 126 votes, two more than the party holds in the assembly, while a far-right candidate secured three. There were 13 abstentions.

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 former president 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

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