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A crucial test for Angela Merkel

Germany is set to get a new president after the shock resignation last month of Horst Köhler. Angela Merkel is hoping they'll back Christian Wulff from her own CDU party. But some lawmakers from Merkel's coalition partner, the FDP, say they may rebel and vote for Joachim Gauck, who's backed by the opposition.

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It's been one month since the unprecedented resignation of the German president, Horst Köhler, who stunned the nation by stepping down after making controversial remarks about the German army's role in Afghanistan.  

Today a special federal assembly will elect a new president. As Angela Merkel and her coalition struggle for survival, it's also being seen as a vote of confidence in her government. Her candidate, Christian Wulff, may well be the favourite, but it's Joachim Gauck, the opposition candidate, who has drawn a nationwide wave of support.  

In the former German Democratic Republic, Joachim Gauck was a pastor and civil rights campaigner. Now he's the official candidate for the opposition in the presidential election. He's charismatic, a consummate orator, and above the political fray. He could well have been the conservative candidate. 

"I have strong links to the conservatives and the liberals," says Joachim Gauck. "I've met them on numerous occasions. I can't imagine that all the conservative and liberal MPs will vote for their own candidate." 

It's hard to remember a German presidential election that was watched so keenly. The press are hot on the heels of both contenders. In Joachim Gauck they see a consensual candidate, the answer for Germans fed up with all the political squabbling in Angela Merkel's cabinet. 

Next to Joachim Gauck, Angela Merkel's candidate, Christian Wulff, looks rather bland. Yet the balance of power in the special assembly that will choose the next president is weighted in Wulff's favour. 

For Christian Democrat Vera Lengsfeld, there's not a shadow of a doubt that Joachim Gauck would be the better president, if the government weren't so weak. 

"This election has become a vote of confidence in the coalition government," she says. "That's why the likelihood that the electoral assembly will actually vote for their favourite candidate is very, very small." 

If it was put to the popular vote, it's clear that Joachim Gauck would be the next German president. On the internet he has tens of thousands of supporters. For the first time in the history of German presidential elections, his internet supporters are organising ad hoc demonstrations to rally support for their candidate. 

Members of Angela Merkel's party say it's going to be a tough choice for the federal assembly. "We have to decide whether to vote tactically for Christian Wulff for political reasons," says one Christian Democrat in Berlin. "Or, on the other hand, to choose the person who we think is actually the better candidate." 

It's a question for the federal assembly to answer. But with the crisis rattling the governing coalition at the moment, the worry for Angela Merkel is that not everyone will necessarily vote along party lines.

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