Vote set to test Merkel's coalition

Failure for chancellor's pick in presidential poll may precipitate early election.


    A special electoral college will gather in Berlin on Wednesday to decide who becomes Germany's new president following the resignation of Horst Kohler.

    Kohler quit the post last month after he seemed to suggest the country's operation in Afghanistan was about economic self-interest rather than helping the Afghan people or fulfilling Nato obligations.

    It is an election where the German people have no say, for a post with little real power, yet it could have a significant impact on who runs the country.

    Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, tried to talk Horst Kohler out of it, but just one year into his second five-year term, Germany's president resigned.

    And then there was further political embarrassment when her first choice to replace Kohler had to be dropped because of internal party dissent.

    So she turned to Christian Wulff, a solid but bland candidate. 

    The German president is elected by a specially constituted federal assembly combining both houses of the German parliament.

    There are 1,244 votes up for grabs and Merkel's three party coalition has a majority of 21.

    However, the chancellor's candidate is not the favourite.

    Protestant pastor

    The front runner is Joachim Gauck, an East German born Protestant pastor who headed investigations into the crimes of the former communist state's secret police, the Stasi, after re-unification.

    He has no party behind him but has won support from the Greens and the Social Democrats (SPD) and, most worryingly for Merkel, from members of her own government.

    Opinion polls put Gauck ten points clear and commentators in the German press talk of how he has impressed during meetings across the country.

    Merkel's popularity has plummeted in recent months.

    She won a second term last September after five years in charge of the 'Grand Coalition' of her conservative centre-right Christian Democrats and their ideological rivals, the left of centre SPD.

    It was a combination which many predicted would end in failure, but it ran the full course of a parliament.

    With a new mandate, Merkel started to put together a new right-leaning government.
    She called in her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the pro-business Free Democrats.

    It was a coalition that was expected to give her more freedom, a meeting of close ideologies.

    But it has been hit by arguments and disagreements almost from day one.

    Confidence vote

    Every major policy announcement sparked a fight; healthcare reform, nuclear power, tax cuts, all areas which provoked mutual distrust, which soon descended into public slanging matches.

    Then there was the euro. Merkel knew bailing out Greece was deeply unpopular with her voters. 

    She was reluctant to help, which angered her eurozone partners, and when finally she signed up to a multi-billion-dollar bailout, she angered the public. 

    If that was not enough, she then instigated a four-year $95bn cuts package which was criticised by economists, opposition parties, trade unions and even some conservatives as "socially unjust". 

    The chancellor cut social-welfare payments but refused to raise taxes.

    And so now the vote on the presidency has become a confidence vote in Merkel's government. 

    Many of her coalition have expressed their support for the charismatic Gauck. It is a secret ballot, and if Gauck wins, it will show she now longer has control of the government.

    This will be parliament's last act before the summer break. It might also be the first of a new election campaign.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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