Merkel on the ropes after presidential humiliation

BERLIN, July 1, 2010 (AFP) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel was left licking her wounds Thursday after rebels in her coalition turned a routine presidential vote into a damaging debacle that left her bruised and weakened.

It took nine hours and three rounds of voting by a special assembly of MPs and public figures on Wednesday for Merkel's candidate Christian Wulff to be elected to the largely ceremonial post of head of state.

Christian Wulff and his wife Bettina Wulff leave the Reichstag building after he was elected German President on June 30, 2010 in Berlin. AFP

With Merkel's coalition holding a majority in the assembly, the election should have been a shoo-in in the first round, but a handful of rebels voted against Wulff in the secret ballot in a blow to the chancellor's authority.

Following embarrassing and dramatic first two rounds, the nail-biting third became in effect a battle for the political future of Merkel, four times named the world's most powerful woman by Forbes Magazine.

"The double failure of Christian Wulff in the presidential vote has brought the Merkel government to the brink of collapse," wrote the left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau daily.

Influential mass circulation Bild daily said the vote debacle "could be the beginning of a gradual process of capitulation by the government", and questioned Merkel's leadership ability.

"Wulff's election is Merkel's defeat," said the daily Berliner Zeitung while Der Spiegel magazine said on its website it was her "biggest failure."

In his acceptance speech, the 51-year-old Wulff, a former leader of Lower Saxony, home to carmaker Volkswagen, made an appeal for unity after what the Tagesspiegel daily dubbed "the day of the long knives" for Merkel.

"We all need to take responsibility for our country," said Wulff, after a rousing standing ovation from Merkel's supporters in which the sense of relief was palpable.

A relieved but sombre Merkel appeared briefly before the cameras to say that Wulff would be a "wonderful" representative for Germany but made no mention of the rebellion within the ranks.

The stakes for Merkel could hardly have been higher. A recent poll in Bild showed that 48 percent of Germans wanted her to throw in the towel if her man did not get elected.

Wulff's rival for the job, former pastor and East German dissident Joachim Gauck, 70, enjoyed more popular support, polls showed.

Political expert Juergen Falter hinted the bitter rebellion in Merkel's ranks could spell the beginning of the end of her second term at the helm of Europe's top economy.

"The fact it went to a third round of voting means the seed of mistrust that has already been planted could begin to bloom ... in any case, the mistrust in this government that is already there will continue," he told Tagesspiegel.

The fiasco capped a rough few months for Merkel, 55, after she won a second term in September at the head of a new-look coalition more to her liking than her previous tie-up with the Social Democrats.

She has seen her popularity nosedive over her handling of the eurozone crisis and has come under fire for plans to slash government spending by more than 80 billion euros (100 billion dollars) over the next four years.

The left-leaning paper Sueddeutsche Zeitung said: "Merkel was not standing for election, but she is the loser of the day ... she has been exposed, and this vote is the writing on the wall."

The Financial Times Deutschland demanded a change in her style, often criticised for being too hesitant.

The presidential vote was "the last warning," said the paper. "Merkel must now reinvent herself and her chancellorship ... show a clear will for political leadership and a clear position on what projects are close to her heart."

"One could perhaps expect her to explain why she wants to govern."

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