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Angela Merkel pushes for unity after election rebuke

The divides in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition over issues such as austerity budgets and nuclear energy were exposed in a drawn-out election for the largely ceremonial office of president.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / July 1, 2010

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacts during a session of the German lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, July 1, 2010. Merkel suffered a major setback on Wednesday after party rebels forced her conservative candidate for president Christian Wulff to stand three times before he could be elected.

Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

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Frankfurt, Germany

Germany's election Wednesday of Christian Wulff, the youngest president in its history, and a backer of Chancellor Angela Merkel, should have been a formality given Ms. Merkel’s comfortable majority in parliament. Instead it turned into a big slap in the face at a time when her popularity is at all-time low.

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Triggered by the unexpected resignation of Horst Köhler, the election by a special parliamentary commission of the young conservative had to go into a rare third round of voting. The election is the most blatant manifestation of the political turmoil within Merkel’s coalition and comes as a debt-ridden Europe searches for leadership from its largest economy.

"The vote shows that this coalition has huge problems," says Heinrich Oberreuter, a political analyst at Passau University. "It could be a wake up call for her to design strategies to regain people’s trust. This is vital."

Annette Schavan, education minister for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, told public radio: "We would have wished for a clearer result on the day, but now it is about looking forward." And she also mad a plea for unity: "Playing as a team is the best way to play."

Since Merkel was reelected last year, rifts have paralyzed her center-right coalition. Issues ranging from lowering taxes to getting out of nuclear energy to reforming health care – not to mention how much of an austerity package the country can stomach – have been left unresolved. Her decision to back a eurozone rescue package for embattled Greece was unpopular in a country that has had to shoulder the cost of German reunification.

Merkel paid a heavy political price for that decision, losing key regional elections in North Rhine Westphalia. The resignation of one of her key allies, the conservative premier of Hessen, Roland Koch, followed by that of Horst Köhler, who resigned after controversial comments made on a trip to Afghanistan, heightened the sense of a government adrift.

"In the context of this massive crisis, the elections turned into a vote of confidence for Merkel," says Mr. Oberreuter. Support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats and neo-liberals have fallen to 36 percent, according to a poll taken Tuesday.

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