Leading members of Angela Merkel’s centre-right government in Germany on Thursday called for stronger leadership and a clearer sense of direction from the chancellor, after a revolt by party delegates during the election of a new federal president.

The three parties in the ruling coalition sought to close ranks after the hard-fought vote, which saw Christian Wulff, the government candidate, forced to go through three rounds in a specially constituted federal assembly before he gained a clear majority.

“The coalition has failed to seize the opportunity of making a new start,” said Stanislaw Tillich, premier of the federal state of Saxony, and a leading member of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

Horst Seehofer, premier of the southern state of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, sister party of the CDU, called for stronger leadership, coded criticism of Ms Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, her vice-chancellor and leader of the liberal Free Democratic party.

The rebellion by up to 44 members of the ruling parties during the election of Mr Wulff surprised most commentators, and was interpreted as a concerted effort to send a message of dissatisfaction to Ms Merkel. Mr Seehofer said that the coalition parties could not simply “return to the current agenda”.

“It was a perfectly dreadful day,” said one CDU backbencher, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The fact that the rebels carried on voting against Mr Wulff, or abstaining, shows the depth of feeling. Maybe the election itself will be forgotten in four weeks. But the miserable state of the coalition will not.”

The challenge facing Ms Merkel is that a series of issues on the agenda divide her government, and there is little sign of the arguments abating.

Health service reform is top of the list, with an €11bn deficit to be filled in 2011, and no agreement on how to get patients to finance the gap. Philipp Rössler, the FDP health minister, wants to introduce a flat-rate contribution, and the CSU is adamantly opposed.

Next week the full government budget is supposed to be approved in cabinet, with sharp spending cuts to be implemented as part of a four-year €80bn programme of savings.

But the coalition partners are warring over when and whether to introduce tax measures that might penalise the rich, and make the austerity plan more socially balanced.

They are also deeply divided on whether to extend the life of nuclear power stations beyond the 2021 deadline currently set for their closure. On that score the Bavaria-based CSU and the FDP are inclined to set a longer extension than members of the CDU, including Norbert Röttgen, the environment minister and a close ally of the chancellor.

The fourth source of public division is the idea of scrapping compulsory conscription to the Bundeswehr, in order to help save at least €1bn from the defence budget. It has been put forward by Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the CSU defence minister, and is backed by the FDP, but strongly opposed by many in the CDU.

On all the main contentious issues, Ms Merkel has allowed disagreements to carry on in public, adding to the impression of indecision in the government. “There is no sign of Ms Merkel changing her style,” the backbencher said.

“She sits and waits until some consensus emerges. I fear that will just carry on, because there is no serious alternative.”

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