Politics as Usual? Merkel's Man for the Presidency

If Chancellor Merkel gets her way, Lower Saxony Governor Christian Wulff will become Germany's next president. He is politically competent and well liked, but lacks charisma. Many accuse him of being little more than a career politician.


There was a time when Christian Wulff, Chancellor Angela Merkel's carefully chosen candidate for German president, had a reputation among members of his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party for being "young and wild." It was in the 1990s and Wulff, battling for attention in the state of Lower Saxony, launched a campaign of criticism against both his party's leader, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and another leading conservative.

Those days, though, are long gone. Now, he says things like, "we have to shape the demographic changes we are facing." Or, "we need a debate about values." When asked recently about his priorities should he be elected to the presidency, he said "the central task will be that of reassuring."

The blandness is by design. Wulff, after all, has spent almost his entire life in politics and has learned how not to rock the boat. And that characteristic, coupled with Wulff's ability to shrug off the criticism inherent in a career in politics, is exactly what Chancellor Merkel was looking for when she went searching for a presidential candidate.

Hanging in the Balance

On Wednesday, parliamentarians in Berlin, together with delegates from Germany's 16 states -- a body known as the Federal Assembly -- will choose the country's next head of state. And the vote is a potential minefield for Merkel. Should Wulff end up losing to Joachim Gauck, the popular candidate nominated by the Social Democrats and the Greens, Merkel's own position could hang in the balance.

Wulff was supposed to be the safe choice. He is palatable to almost everyone, even if he inspires no one. And, he won't turn his back on the office at the first signs of public disapproval -- a key characteristic for Merkel after Horst Köhler, her choice for president in 2004 and re-elected last year, quit in a huff following press opprobrium related to his comments on the war in Afghanistan.

But exactly those features that make Wulff attractive to Merkel have become his Achilles heel in the run-up to the Wednesday vote. He is pitted against Joachim Gauck, the charismatic pastor and citizens' rights activist from the former East Germany. And even though Wulff's political allies hold the majority in the Federal Assembly, enthusiasm for Gauck among both the public and the press may ultimately sway enough voters to endanger Wulff's chances at Germany's highest office.

Wulff, 51, has devoted his entire career to the CDU. He was elected head of the CDU's student organization at the tender age of 19 and quickly began making a name for himself in the party and in the state of Lower Saxony. Seven years ago, he became governor of his state.

Upright Reputation

He is well liked. He is handsome, friendly and politically moderate. He is an expert at being that which others would like him to be. The fact that he was forced to take care of both his mother, who fell ill with multiple sclerosis, and his younger sister when he was just 15 also adds to his upright reputation.

But at a time when many in Germany are becoming fed up with Merkel's leadership, it is perhaps not surprising that a career politician like Wulff has failed to capture the public's imagination -- particularly when compared to his competitor Joachim Gauck. The influential weekly Die Zeit wrote recently that the most interesting thing about Wulff is that he writes his name with two Fs. "And that isn't interesting," the paper concluded.

Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats, echoed the criticism when he said that Gauck had led a life whereas Wulff had led a political resume.

Still, despite the lack of enthusiasm for Wulff's candidacy, his election is seen as almost a sure thing on Wednesday. And then he can get started reassuring the country and instigating a debate on values.

With reporting by René Pfister


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