The World from Berlin: 'Angela Merkel Is Flying Completely Blind'

The shock resignation of Germany's president has landed Chancellor Angela Merkel in yet another major political crisis. German commentators say she needs to act fast to find a replacement. Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen is emerging as the leading candidate.

Frauenpower: Are Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen the future faces of Germany? Zoom
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Frauenpower: Are Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen the future faces of Germany?

As the dust settles after Monday's surprise resignation by German President Horst Köhler, the debate in the country has turned to his possible successor.

Now, a new favorite appears to have emerged: Ursula von der Leyen. German media reported Wednesday that von der Leyen, the current labor minister, is Chancellor Angela Merkel's preferred candidate for the position. Von der Leyen's candidacy "is firming up," sources in Merkel's Christian Democrats told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

If von der Leyen became president, it would mean that Germany's top two top political jobs would be filled by women. Other top candidates are said to be Norbert Lammert, the president of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

Von der Leyen, a member of Merkel's conservative CDU, is one of Germany's most popular politicians and is centrist enough to appeal to the left-leaning camp. The 51-year-old mother of seven made a name for herself in her previous position of family minister, when she introduced new financial benefits for parents taking time off from work to raise children and pushed through plans to expand Germany's kindergarten childcare system. She showed herself to be tenacious and not afraid to stand up for her pet projects.

The opposition, however, appears less enthusiastic about the names that have been put forward. Neither von der Leyen, Lammert nor Schäuble is "convincing," said Sebastian Edathy, a senior member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). He mentioned the current justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Scharrenberger, a member of the business-friendly, liberal Free Democratic Party, as a possible candidate instead. The SPD has said it reserves the right to put forward its own candidate.

The far-left Left Party also rejected von der Leyen and called on Merkel to come up with a non-partisan candidate. The opposition's influence is limited, however: Merkel's political camp has a comfortable majority in the Federal Assembly, a body which includes both parliamentarians and state delegates and whose only purpose is to elect the country's president.

Merkel Under Pressure to Act

Köhler resigned on Monday in reaction to criticism of controversial remarks he made on Germany's mission in Afghanistan. His resignation was a further blow to Merkel, who has multiple crises on her plate at the moment, including the wobbling euro, coalition in-fighting and low poll ratings for her Christian Democrats. Köhler's departure comes just a few days after the resignation of Hesse governor Roland Koch, a CDU hardliner whose departure has left a big gap in the conservative wing of Merkel's party.

Merkel now has to act fast to fill Köhler's shoes. The Federal Assembly is scheduled to convene to elect a successor on June 30. The onus is on the chancellor to find a suitable replacement for Köhler and to make sure he or she gets broad backing. Any hiccups in the process would likely raise fresh doubts about Merkel's leadership.

On Wednesday, commentators in Germany's main newspapers take a look at what Köhler's shock resignation means for Merkel and discuss who should fill the post.

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Köhler's departure has thrown the spotlight on the shocking vacuum that confronts the political leadership of this country. The coalition government of the conservative Christian Democrats and the business-friendly Free Democrats -- the preferred coalition of CDU leader Angela Merkel and FDP head Guido Westerwelle -- has failed."

"Angela Merkel is now flying completely blind. She no longer has any coordinates. The second financial crisis was not foreseen. The CDU's party program was drawn up in a different Germany, and Merkel can no longer use it as a basis for action. The platforms of her coalition partner, the FDP, are also obsolete. The coalition agreement (that the governing parties drew up after the 2009 election) is no longer usable, not even in a single point."

"Probably the coalition will continue to govern for another three years. It will manage to deal with the political vacuum and will try to conceal it. ... And one must almost wish that they succeed. After all, what would be the alternative? Another crisis that so shakes the country that it sweeps away the government? ... No. Following Köhler's resignation, Germany's politicians cannot afford to fool around. The country is in a state of crisis. It's a word that has been bandied about for a long time. Now we understand what it really means."

The mass-circulation Bild writes:

"Euro chaos. A hole in the budget. Problems within the coalition government. And now a president who is a deserter. Let's not kid ourselves: The ingredients for a general crisis of confidence in Germany are all there. That fact is poison for the economy and bad for the state. It's enough to make one uneasy."

"But unlike Horst Köhler, Angela Merkel cannot simply throw in the towel. She has to face the situation. ... The chancellor herself is partially to blame for the coalition's false start. It won't work if she tries to continue in the same way with a few half-hearted measures. It's therefore quite possible that the next seven days will be decisive for Angela Merkel's chancellorship."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Koch, Köhler, chancellor? Angela Merkel doesn't have to throw in the towel quite yet. But slowly she could find herself with creeping doubts that not many people are left who still believe in her. The resignation crescendo of the last eight days has robbed the chancellor of two allies in different but important areas."

"The more important thing now is for the chancellor to swiftly and assuredly fill the vacant post of German president. She cannot afford a second mistake in her choice to fill Germany's highest office."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"The chancellor is in a crisis. The resignation of two figures such as Roland Koch and Horst Köhler within a week is a severe blow to her coalition government. That comes on top of the euro crisis, the need for austerity measures and a shocking low for her Christian Democrats in the opinion polls."

"If Merkel chooses a prominent figure from her cabinet, such as Wolfgang Schäuble or Ursula von der Leyen, as her candidate for president, a major restructuring of the government will be necessary. Normally the chancellor shies away from complicated reshuffles. After the coalition's false start, however, change could also provide an opportunity. Merkel should take it. The chancellor can make a virtue of necessity, if she decides quickly and uses this opportunity to make personnel and political changes in the government. There is certainly plenty of scope for improvement."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"At the start of his term, Horst Köhler announced that he wanted to be 'inconvenient.' Now he has simply quit when criticism of him became too uncomfortable. He clearly has a particularly thin skin."

"Köhler didn't just disappoint the people who liked him -- he has also duped the members of the Federal Assembly, which elected him for a second term in 2009. And he has conjured up a crisis of confidence and a constitutional crisis right in the middle of a financial crisis. Köhler's abrupt resignation has rocked the already battered confidence in the institutions of the German state and has set an undignified deadline for the other constitutional organs. Köhler didn't fulfill his duties conscientiously. For someone like him who had a strong sense of duty, that's a tragedy."

The Financial Times Deutschland takes a favorable view of Ursula von der Leyen's suitability for the position:

"The chancellor will be doing the right thing if she nominates an experienced politician this time around. ... The office of German president needs someone who is adept at dealing with the media and who can cope with the at-times abrasive style of political debate. The favorite for the position, Ursula von der Leyen, has these qualities. She is conservative enough for the CDU and modern enough not to completely alienate the left-leaning center. And she is not afraid to fight for her chosen issues with energy, charisma and persistence -- which would be a refreshing change from Köhler. The damage to the office of president that his huffy resignation has caused could be repaired that way."

-- David Gordon Smith

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