German Presidential Election Exposes Cracks in Merkel’s Coalition

BY Larisa Epatko  June 30, 2010 at 6:41 PM EST


Germany’s new President Christian Wulff casts his ballot earlier in the day. Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

It took three rounds of voting Wednesday to elect Chancellor Angela Merkel’s candidate for president, Christian Wulff, in a sign of brewing differences within her coalition ranks.

The president in Germany, who has a largely symbolic role, is elected by a Federal Assembly made up of 1,244 representatives — half federal lawmakers and half nominated by state parliaments.

Merkel’s center-right coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats has a majority with 644 seats. But in the first and second rounds of voting, her choice for president, Wulff, couldn’t muster the 623 votes needed for a majority, instead getting 600 and then 615 votes.

After a third round Wednesday evening, he secured 625 votes and the presidency. His main challenger, Joachim Gauck, the opposition candidate for the Social Democratic and Green parties, received 494 votes, while 121 delegates abstained.

Wulff replaces former President Horst Koehler, who abruptly resigned May 31 a year into his second five-year term, after receiving criticism for comments he made linking military missions abroad with Germany’s economic interests.

Koehler’s resignation and now the struggle to elect his successor shows the strains of Merkel’s coalition as her conservative party moves closer to the center — to accommodate a public that is largely left-of-center — but goes against the grain of her smaller free-market coalition partner, said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, senior director for policy programs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“That creates frictions in how much market economy and how much welfare system you actually need. Those basic questions are very much in doubt in this coalition,” he said.

Also putting intense pressure on Germany’s government are the global economy and cost-cutting efforts to address it. “It is very hard for governments of democratic countries to find majorities for unpopular measures that need to be done in days like these,” said Kleine-Brockhoff. “That is certainly true for the austerity measures that the Merkel government took just a few weeks ago.”

But Germany is Europe’s largest economy, and a precondition for Europe getting out of the economic crisis is a German government that is able to act, he said. “And as long as this internal bickering goes on, and as long as you have a weak chancellor domestically, it is very hard to see how she can take the initiative to reform the euro system that is necessary emanating from the Greek crisis and the 750 billion euro bailout package that necessitates structural reform of the European system. Without German leadership, that is impossible.”