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.
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.
German presidents are considered moral rather than political authorities, giving the country direction with their speeches and presence, especially in times of crisis. Former president Richard von Weizsäcker's speech in May 1985, for example, in commemoration of the end of the war, is still embedded in the German psyche.
This month, Mr. von Weizsäcker called for delegates to vote according their conscience. The heart of the nation tilted toward Joachim Gauck, who for many embodied the struggle for freedom and democracy in the formerly divided country, while Christian Wulff was considered an unremarkable career politician. Even Merkel, who, like Mr. Gauck, had grown up in former East Germany, had once considered Gauck as her choice for president. But party considerations dominated the process.
"Every parliamentarian, every delegate knew the stakes were high. They knew that the wrong vote could mean the death of the coalition," says Oberreuter.
The limits of Merkel’s influence were obvious early on when, for instance, the conservative party refused to rally around her top choice, labor minister Ursula von der Leyen, a progressive family minister who implemented policies once unthinkable among conservative politicians. Afraid of alienating her party further, and still under the shock of Koch’s departure, she settled for a loyal product of the CDU political machinery.
‘’She didn’t want to take any risk anymore - she was afraid that the elections could be used as indirect revenge,’ says Eckard Jesse of Leipzig University. But, he says, sticking with the candidate of her choice "would have been a sign of strength and authority, not a sign of weakness."
Meanwhile, the Social Democrats managed a grandiose coup of their own, nominating a highly respected candidate, a former pastor not affiliated with any party who many conservatives had said would make a good president. Joachim Gauck had captured the heart of the nation, polls showed, while Wulff’s bland ways failed to win people’s enthusiasm.
However bitter for Merkel, the elections could force a new beginning, Oberreuter says. "It is important to stabilize the political process," he says.
The real winners, some say, is neither Wulff nor Gauck, but rather, party democracy. "Angela Merkel wasn’t voted out of office. This was not a vote of confidence against her," he says. That so many delegates voted according to their conscience is healthy, he adds: ‘It shows the openness, the vitality of our party democracy."