Old Merkel rival tipped as new German president: report

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A conservative state premier and erstwhile rival of Chancellor Angela Merkel emerged Thursday as her hand-picked favourite to become the next German president, a report said.

The daily Bild said Merkel and leaders from her conservative Christian Union bloc and their coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, had agreed on Lower Saxony premier Christian Wulff as their pick to be the next head of state.

Earlier, speculation had centred around Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a popular mother of seven from Merkel's conservatives, but party sources said that she had withdrawn from the running.

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 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.

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

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

Merkel's ruling coalition holds a majority in a special assembly made up of MPs and public figures that will elect the new president.

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.

More concrete indications on the nominee were expected to emerge following a meeting Thursday between Merkel and state premiers from her conservative bloc.

© 2010 AFP

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