Thursday, July 1, 2010

President 'debacle' casts shadow over Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel licked her wounds Thursday after rebels in her coalition turned a straightforward presidential election into a humiliating debacle that made her look weaker than ever.

In theory, Merkel's coalition had more than enough votes in an assembly of lawmakers and public figures on Wednesday to comfortably secure an election of the conservative Christian Wulff to the largely ceremonial job of head of state.

But in dramatic scenes in what Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel daily called the "day of the long knives," enough of her three-party coalition rebelled for Wulff to fall short of an absolute majority in two rounds of voting by secret ballot.

Wulff, 51, Lower Saxony's conservative state premier for seven years, was eventually elected in a third round but it took the longest-ever presidential election process in post-war German history to do so.

After the first two embarrassing voting rounds, the nail-biting third became a battle for the political future of Merkel, four times named the world's most powerful woman by Forbes Magazine.

A recent poll in mass-circulation daily Bild showed 48 percent of Germans wanted her to throw in the towel if her man had lost the vote, compared to 30 percent who believed she should soldier on.

Despite being hand-picked by Merkel, Wulff faced a strong challenge from Joachim Gauck, 70, a former East German dissident and pastor, who polls showed was more popular among ordinary voters.

Bild called the election a "massive slap" for Merkel while the centre-left weekly Die Zeit said it was a "humiliation" nine months after she won a second term at the head of Europe's biggest economy.

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

Der Spiegel magazine said it was her "biggest failure."

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