False Start for Christian Wulff A Difficult Beginning for Germany's New President

The position of German president is supposed to be above politics. But Wednesday's election of Christian Wulff showed that this vote was only about politics. Wulff himself will have to work hard to avoid becoming the day's biggest loser.

DPA

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He considers himself to be a "gentle and peaceable" man. He has never, he says, wanted to become an "alpha dog." Should one call him vociferous, he would be insulted.

Even if one doesn't completely believe him, it is easy to imagine how difficult this day must have been for Christian Wulff, Germany's new president.

Wulff was elected by the Federal Assembly in Berlin as the country's 10th postwar president -- but instead of being a relaxed, peaceful day of summer celebration in the German capital, it turned into a disaster. In the first round of elections, Wulff failed to get the required absolute majority, even though Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition, which chose him as their candidate, had more than enough votes.

It was the same story in the second round. It was only in the third round, late on Wednesday evening, that enough of the gathered delegates finally threw their support behind Christian Wulff.

It was exactly the kind of result that Wulff and Merkel had been hoping to avoid.

The Need to Convince Skeptics

Wulff, at age 51, has become the youngest president in the six-decade history of the Federal Republic of Germany. And he will have to immediately prove his worthiness. He will have to show that he can rise above the conflict surrounding his election. He will have to build bridges and fill in trenches. And, unusually, much of that repair work will have to be done in the coalition that nominated him.

Chancellor Merkel's conservatives, together with their coalition partners from the pro-business Free Democrats, had a comfortable majority in the Federal Assembly on Wednesday. But many of them -- too many of them -- found the opposition candidate, Joachim Gauck, more attractive than Wulff. Wulff will now have to win them over. And he will have to convince at least half of Germany's citizens as well.

Complicating his task is the fact that the position he has been chosen for comes with little in the way of power. It is a largely ceremonial position, one that is supposed to be above the political fray. But Wednesday's spectacle was all about politics -- and Wulff's reputation as a product of the Christian Democratic political machinery will make his undertaking all the more difficult. Everyone can see that his election was ultimately only made possible by cold, hard politics.

A 'Wonderful Future President'

Chancellor Merkel chose Wulff, an erstwhile rival, herself. Many saw him as a potential chancellor candidate should Merkel stumble. She praised him as a "wonderful future president" and, in reference to Wulff's children, she emphasized how "great" it would be when a smiling child "is running though the presidential residence even in times of difficulty."

The chancellor had in fact made a risky bet. If she had got her candidate elected smoothly in the Federal Assembly, it would have proven her leadership and stabilized her shaky coalition government.

Now the opposite is the case.

Merkel hit on the idea of Wulff, who himself had been looking for a new challenge for some time. Everyone around him knew that he no longer felt sufficiently stretched in his job of governor of the state of Lower Saxony. "Christian has been looking for a springboard to Berlin for a long time," commented one long-time companion.

But what was Wulff supposed to do? Wait until Merkel's chancellorship came to a premature end? Years earlier, Wulff had, somewhat disingenuously, said in interviews that he lacked "the unconditional thirst for power and the willingness to subordinate everything else to that drive." He rejected the idea of an overly aggressive approach in his quest for more power. Then, German President Horst Köhler resigned, and Wulff saw a new chance. His interests were suddenly identical with those of Merkel.

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