The German chancellor Angela Merkel was left licking her wounds today after rebels in her coalition turned the routine exercise of picking a president into a damaging debacle that left her bruised and weakend. It took nine hours and three rounds of voting by a special assembly of MPs and public figures last night for Mrs Merkel's candidate Christian Wulff to be elected to the largely ceremonial post of head of state.
With Mrs 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 Mr Wulff in the secret ballot in a blow to the chancellor's authority. Following these embarrassing and dramatic first two voting rounds, the nail-biting third became in effect a battle for the political future of Mrs 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 Mrs Merkel government to the brink of collapse," wrote the left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau daily. Influential mass circulation Bild daily said that the vote debacle "could be the beginning of a gradual process of the government simply giving up." "For Angela Mrs Merkel, Christian Wulff was her candidate. The fact he got no majority in the first two voting rounds calls into question her leadership ability as party leader," the paper wrote.
"Mr Wulff's election is Mrs 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 Mr 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 Mrs Merkel. "We all need to take responsibility for our country," said Mr Wulff, after a rousing standing ovation from Mrs Merkel's supporters in which the sense of relief was palpable.
A relieved but sombre Mrs Merkel appeared briefly before the cameras to say that Mr Wulff would be a "wonderful" representative for Germany but made no mention of the rebellion within the ranks. The stakes for Mrs Merkel could hardly have been higher. A recent poll in Bild showed that 48 per cent of Germans wanted her to throw in the towel if her man did not get elected. Political expert Juergen Falter hinted the bitter rebellion in Mrs 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 Mrs 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 cut government spending by more than ?80 billion euros (Dh359bn) over the next four years. 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. "Mrs 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."