February 17, 2012 11:58 am

President’s exit a personal blow to Merkel

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin

Christian Wulff’s resignation as state president is a personal blow for Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who was instrumental in proposing him for the post after the resignation of Horst Köhler, his predecessor, in 2010.

Ms Merkel must now find an alternative candidate capable of restoring public confidence in the post of president, a ceremonial role but one which is supposed to incorporate the core values of the federal republic.

By choosing a leading member her own Christian Democratic Union, rather than a less political figure, Ms Merkel always risked a political backlash once any hint of scandal started to revolve around the presidency.

She will now have to choose a candidate acceptable to the opposition Social Democrats and Greens, because she no longer enjoys an absolute majority in the federal assembly which must be convened to elect the state president.

The choice will be studied with great care for signals that Ms Merkel might prefer to govern in a grand coalition with the SPD after the next election in 2013. If she makes the wrong choice, it could even cause her centre-right coalition with the liberal Free Democratic party to collapse ahead of time.

The state presidency has always been seen as a political choice, although once in office, the incumbent has traditionally striven to rise above party politics.

As a life-long politician, culminating in his election as prime minister in Lower Saxony, Mr Wulff was seen as a less popular choice than his non-party challenger Joachim Gauck, a former East German protestant pastor and civil rights campaigner, who was proposed by the SPD and Greens.

Ms Merkel faced a rebellion in her own ranks at the time of his election, but Mr Wulff succeeded in winning the vote in the third round. The process damaged the chancellor’s popularity, leaving her coalition looking adrift and divided.

Since then she has gradually restored her own popularity, and that of her party, thanks to her handling of the eurozone crisis. Indeed, many commentators see her as playing an almost presidential role as chancellor, seeking to stay clear of political infighting.

On the positive side for the German leader, Mr Wulff’s decision to quit in the face of a demand to lift his immunity from prosecution means that the painful process of finding a successor can be completed well before the election due in autumn 2013.

However, the blow will compound a perception that Ms Merkel’s choices of political personnel have been flawed. Mr Köhler was also very much her personal choice for the post, and the fact that two state presidents have quit during her chancellorship is damaging.

She will undoubtedly face pressure from her party to find another Christian Democrat to stand for the job, although opposition leaders have already called for a cross-party consensus to depoliticise the whole question.

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