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Letter From Berlin: German Presidential Election Degraded by Party Politics


When parliamentary delegates meet in the Reichstag in Berlin on Wednesday to elect a new German president, they won't be free to pick the best candidate for the job. This election is about power, revenge and the fate of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Party politics has robbed the vote of its dignity.

Who would make the better president? Anti-communist human rights activist Joachim Gauck (left) is standing against career politician Christian Wulff (right), who was nominated by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Zoom

Who would make the better president? Anti-communist human rights activist Joachim Gauck (left) is standing against career politician Christian Wulff (right), who was nominated by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Chancellor Angela Merkel faces what amounts to a vote of confidence in her leadership on Wednesday when a special parliamentary assembly will elect a new president. Her popularity has plunged since her re-election in September due to growing rifts in her center-right coalition, criticism of how she handled the euro crisis and anger at an austerity package many believe is socially unjust. She urgently needs the result to go her way or she could face the biggest crisis of her political career.

Merkel has nominated Christian Wulff, 51, a career politician from her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party who has been governor of the northern state of Lower Saxony for the last seven years. He is regarded as a safe but uninspiring choice for the largely ceremonial post as German head of state which became vacant after the surprise resignation in May of previous incumbent Horst Köhler.

Unfortunately for Merkel, the opposition center-left Social Democrats and Greens have nominated a more popular candidate who even members of Merkel's own coalition believe would make a better president than Wulff -- Joachim Gauck, 70, a former anti-communist human rights activist in East Germany, who was in charge of the administration of the Stasi secret police files after German reunification.

Merkel's CDU, along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and their coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrat Party (FDP), have a majority of 21 in the parliamentary assembly of 1,244 delegates that will convene at noon, German time, to elect the president.

Crucial Vote for Merkel

The Federal Constitution states that delegates are free to vote for whomever they want, but delegates have come under intense pressure from their party chiefs to toe the line. The coalition parties know what is at stake -- if Merkel fails to get her candidate approved, her authority will be so badly damaged that her chancellorship could be in danger.

The Federal Assembly, a body which only convenes for presidential elections, has in fact been hijacked by party political interests. Wednesday's vote will not be a true election.

Photo Gallery

16  Photos
Photo Gallery: The Uninspiring Christian Wulff

Merkel picked Wulff to pacify her restless, dissatisfied party. The opposition picked Gauck to damage Merkel because they knew he would be an attractive candidate for conservatives. After all, the charismatic pastor espouses traditional conservative views on the economy and immigration that his backers in the SPD and Greens find hard to swallow.

Several delegates from Merkel's coalition have broken ranks and said publicly that Gauck's biography is compelling -- his is a powerful story about the struggle for freedom and democracy. He has something to say to Germans, and he's a political outsider. No one is quite sure what Wulff's message would be after a lifetime spent in career politics during which he came up with few policy initiatives of note.

"This presidential election is riddled with party politics and the conservatives really aren't covering themselves in glory," says Eckhard Jesse, a political analyst at Chemnitz University. Another analyst, Heinrich Oberreuter from Passau University, says: "Presidential elections always were party political elections, but with this election the party political aspect is unusually prominent."

What gives parties the right to take the state and other public institutions hostage? Their dominance is particularly blatant this time. Christian Wulff is a product of this political system. Joachim Gauck has led a very different life.

No Free Choice

It would be intriguing to see what would happen if the assembly were really free to choose between these two candidates. But it isn't free because this election isn't about picking the best candidate. Instead, Wednesday's vote is about how long Angela Merkel will be able to remain chancellor. If her candidate fails, the rumblings in her coalition could escalate into outright unwillingness to carry on governing together.

Photo Gallery

12  Photos
Photo Gallery: Joachim Gauck Runs for the Center-Left
The 1,244 delegates -- half of them are the members of the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, and the other half are dispatched by the legislatures of the 16 regional states -- will have to decide whether they dare to make a free choice, and how seriously they take Paragraph 7 of the law on the election of the president by the Federal Assembly which states: "The delegates are not bound by mandates or instructions."

But June 30 is more likely to be a day of cold political calculation. Even Angela Merkel's support for Wulff won't be wholehearted. It's an open secret in Berlin political circles that Wulff, behind a façade of friendly smiles, rarely misses an opportunity to badmouth the chancellor behind her back. Merkel knows that. So why did she nominate him?

Merkel, who spent the first 36 years of her life in communist East Germany before making a lateral move into politics, was never a typical CDU member. That gave her the freedom to reform the party, to make it more environmentally friendly and to nudge it to the left. In doing so, she sidelined a powerful bloc of western party barons and gradually bled it dry. One of her main detractors, Hesse Governor Roland Koch, a conservative hardliner, resigned last month.

Wulff is the last of those CDU strongmen left. In her fight to keep them at bay and modernize the party over the last decade, Merkel, the Protestant easterner, has used up a lot of credit in the western, Catholic-dominated CDU. At this point she doesn't have the confidence to test her party's tolerance any further, for example by nominating an independent candidate for the presidency, or Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who would have been an obvious choice as Germany's first female head of state.


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The Fractures in Merkel's Coalition
Tax Increases
Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet recently put together an austerity program designed to reduce spending by €80 billion ($95 billion) by 2014. It is the largest such package of cuts since World War II, but it has been criticized for not demanding sacrifices from Germany's wealthy and top earners. Several leading members of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have urged her to consider raising taxes in the highest brackets. Her junior coalition partners from the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) have protested vehemently against any such increases, with some saying that a tax hike could force the FDP out of the coalition.
Mandatory Conscription
Given Merkel's desire to cut spending, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, openly speculated that jettisoning mandatory conscription, a feature of the German military since 1957. Despite having signalled her willingness to consider just such a step, Merkel declined to support her defense minister. Rumors circulated over the weekend that Guttenberg was considering handing in his resignation as a result.
Health Care Reform
Since his swearing in last October, Health Minister Philipp Rösler (FDP) has been working on a fundamental change in the way Germany's health care system is funded. His plan has been discussed in detail within the coalition and, after difficult negotiations with the CSU, an agreement appeared to be in the offing. In the end, however, the CSU declined to support Rösler and Merkel stood by as the reform faltered, allowing her health minister's public image to suffer. The FDP was outraged and referred to the CSU as a "wild sow." In response, the CSU called the FDP a "troop of cucumbers," roughly akin to calling the party a gaggle of bumbling idiots.
Whether or not Germany will use federal funds to help out the struggling carmaker Opel has long been a point of dispute in Berlin. Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle (FDP) recently went on record as saying that no federal funds would be made available to Opel. Shortly thereafter, Merkel contradicted her minister by saying that the last word had not been spoken. Many anticipated Brüderle's resignation -- until Merkel aligned her position with that of her minister the next day. It was an about face that angered the FDP yet again and made Merkel look indecisive.
Presidential Candidate
The resignation of President Horst Köhler at the end of May caught nearly everyone by surprised. Merkel sought to find a replacement candidate quickly, and initially supported the candidacy of Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU). With some in her party tepid about von der Leyen, however, Merkel quickly backed away and threw her support behind Christian Wulff (CDU), the governor of Lower Saxony. The about-face made von der Leyen look bad.
Nuclear Reactor Life-Spans
One of the central policies of Merkel's new government when it entered office last autumn was its desire to overturn a law requiring all nuclear reactors in the country to go offline by the early 2020s. Following a miserable showing in North Rhine-Westphalia state elections in April, however, her government lost its majority in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber. Merkel's government, already not totally in agreement on nuclear energy policy, mused about the possibility of pushing through the extension without Bundesrat approval, but has since been criticized for considering such a course of action. Merkel remains unsure how to proceed. Part of the austerity package foresees a new tax on radioactive waste, but there has been public disagreement within the CDU as to whether such a tax would be introduced without a lifespan extension. The headlines have added to the impression the coalition has lost its way.

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