It is normally something of an electoral sideshow in Germany, but Wednesday’s vote to choose a new president is being seen as a major test of Angela Merkel’s authority.
As she and her conservative coalition stumble lower and lower in the opinion polls, the Chancellor needs to prove she is still in charge.
She has stuck her neck out to support the premier of Lower Saxony state, Christian Wulff. Belonging to the right wing of the CDU, the 51-year-old has led the regional government in Hannover since 2003.
As a regional baron, he has often been in open disagreement with Merkel. By propelling him towards the presidency – a role which is largely a question of protocol – the Chancellor is effectively neutering a potential rival in her own camp.
In theory, it is a gamble that should pay off. The Conservatives and Liberals have about twenty votes more than the absolute majority needed to elect Christian Wulff.
But that is without taking into consideration the opposition candidate, whose popularity some commentators say threatens the government’s choice.
Joachim Gauck is threatening to turn this normally sedate election into a political cliffhanger that could topple Merkel herself.
The candidate of the Social Democrats and Greens – a 70 year old Protestant pastor and former human rights dissident in the old East Germany – is more popular with the public than Wulff.
His fame is said to have endeared him to some inside the Chancellor’s camp. He has talked down his chances of winning the presidency, but says his prospects have improved over the past week. Some analysts believe a Gauck victory would force Merkel and her vice-Chancellor to resign.
The 1,244-strong Federal Assembly which will vote in the election, is made up in equal proportions by parliamentarians from the Bundestag, and by regional delegates – including actors, music and sports stars – who are nominated by the parties.
The three potential stages of the election provide a threat to Merkel’s credibility. Her candidate, Wulff, needs an absolute majority in the first or second round of voting to be elected. But if there are enough abstentions or defections, a relative majority would suffice in a third round. That could seriously undermine the Chancellor.
All this was set in motion a month ago by the resignation of the last German president Horst Koehler. It followed accusations that he had encouraged “gunboat diplomacy” in comments he made on Germany’s role in Afghanistan.
Joachim Gauck denies he is seeking to undermine Angela Merkel’s government. However, anything but an outright victory for Wulff, and some say the pressure on the Chancellor could become too much.