German presidential election goes into third and final round of voting

German presidential election goes into third and final round of voting

By Peter Stuetzle and Marc Koch

The vote for Germany's next president is going into a third and final round. The Conservative candidate and favorite, Christian Wulff received only 600 votes in the first round, 23 short of the absolute majority he needed. In the second, Wulff climbed to 615, still eight votes shy of the winning post.

In the third round, a simple majority - which Wulff has comfortably held in both ballots so far - will suffice for victory.

Wulff is the candidate of Chancellor Merkel's center-right coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats. These parties hold a majority in the 1,244-seat voting assembly, with 644 delegates, meaning that unanimous support within the government would have sufficed to elect Wulff definitively.

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This mini-rebellion in the back benches is seen by many as a major blow to the Berlin government. Wulff's campaign was also shaken by the strong opposition candidate, Joachim Gauck.

In Gauck, the center-left coalition had fielded a competitor who has managed to win more popular support than Wullf. A former civil rights activist, who fought against communist oppression in the former East Germany, Gauck is held in high esteem across party lines.

Gauck received 499 votes in the first round and 490 in the second, 39 and 30 more than expected. In total, the opposition Social Democrats and Greens - who put Gauck forward as a candidate - only command 460 votes.

"I think it's very, very positive that we are really having a vote," Green Party chairwoman, Claudia Roth told the Phoenix news channel, referring to the willingness of some government backbenchers to break ranks.

"We're not electing a government today, but rather the best possible president for Germany."

To have any chance of victory, Gauck will have to win over the supporters of Left Party third candidate, Lukrezia Jochimsen. However, the group had ruled out supporting Gauck before the ballot. Despite the surprise first round setback, Wulff remains clear favorite for the post.
Extraordinary vote
Germany's 1,244-seat Federal Convention assembled in Berlin to cast their vote on Germany's next head of state. One month after former president Horst Koehler stepped down in a surprise resignation, there are three nominees competing to succeed him in what so far has proved to be a very interesting vote.

Usually, the ruling coalition would have presented its candidate for the largely ceremonial presidency and the June 30 vote would have been little more than a formality. Opposition parties can field a competitor but normally have little chance of success.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel's nominee came as a surprise: Christian Wulff is seen by many as a rather colorless conservative state premier.

Merkel described Wulff as "a person I got to know during the time of Germany's reunification. He is someone who is willing to try out new paths, someone who's creative and open towards others. At the same time he's someone who is rooted in a value system providing orientation."

Christian Wulff served as state premier of Lower Saxony for seven years and is also deputy party chairman of Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Wulff himself stressed that he would seek to transcend party divisions in his new post. "I think that it is possible to bring people together, to do something for the solidarity in our society, to give people courage and optimism when times are difficult."
Politician versus civil rights activist

But not everyone is convinced. Wulff is seen in many quarters as a party politician deeply rooted in Merkel's Christian Democrats.

When the center-left opposition fielded its candidate, it seemed they had pulled off what Merkel had failed to do. Their man, Joachim Gauck, is not affiliated to any party but was a civil rights activist who fought against communist oppression in East Germany.

He later became director of the archives of the countless files left behind by the East's former secret police, the Stasi. Gauck is a candidate who is respected across the political spectrum and therefore in a good position to win support also from the members of Merkel's governing coalition.

"Joachim Gauck is a candidate with a remarkable record behind him," Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel said. "The coalition's nominee Wulff only has a political career."
Underdog enjoys popular support

Polls showed that Joachim Gauck enjoyed greater popular support than Wulff and German media have been speculating for days what a potential defeat for Merkel's nominee would mean for the government in Berlin.

The relentless squabbling in Merkel's coalition has seen her come under fire in recent weeks and a few members of the Free Democrats in eastern Germany came out in support of Gauck.

"I have in my life seen things happen that were deemed very unlikely," a relaxed Gauck said about his chances to actually make it. "So I am going into this vote with happy composure."
Not an attack

Also in the fray is a third candidate, nominated by the far-left Left Party who said they would vote for neither of the two main candidates. But their nominee Luc Jochimsen has no chance of coming even close to winning.

Should Joachim Gauck indeed manage to cause a major upset and win, then some commentators are predicting Merkel's government in Berlin could fall.

Yet Gauck himself was the first to come out and dispel such concerns. "I am appalled by this idea in the press that a successful candidacy on my part is an attack on the chancellor," he said.

But Gauck added that the next president would have to deal with public disillusionment in German politics. "The German people have a deep longing for credibility in politics," he said.
Opinion: Political power games damage the post of president

The government candidate Christian Wulff has been elected German president, in the end with a clear majority. But DW’s Marc Koch believes he enters an office that is damaged thanks to undignified political power games.

If the people had been given their choice, Germany would now have a different president. Three-quarters of the population would have preferred to see the opposition candidate Joachim Gauck as head of state. The fact that he did not win the election will reinforce the German public's dissatisfaction and disenchantment with politics.

The selection of a president was never free from party political influence, but this time the parties have outdone themselves.

They have turned the decision about the head of state into an embarrassing mudslinging contest.

Purely for reasons of political power, Angela Merkel and her coalition had nominated a candidate who suits their political needs exclusively.

For that same reason, in fact, many Germans did not want Christian Wulff as the head of state. But to the coalition that doesn't matter.
Opposition also guilty
The two major opposition parties SPD and Greens haven't been any better. To send the pastor and human rights activist Joachim Gauck, who is not affiliated to any political party, into the running was a masterstroke.

That gave the impression that the opposition was serious about going for the best person to hold the highest office in the country.

In reality, the nomination of Gauck was nothing more than an attempt to drive a wedge into the coalition.
Distinguishing features

Now, the candidate of the strongest parties has come out on top, but how Christian Wulff will represent Germany internationally and what will be the main points on his domestic agenda is not at all clear.

The German president has, in any case, only a weak and representative role. He should stand above the parties and be there for all citizens. He hardly ever makes political decisions.

It is all the more important that he uses his position to develop further the ideas and topics of day-to-day politics. The people want direction and vision for the future from their president.
A place in history
Many of Christian Wulff's predecessors had topics of their own. For Horst Koehler it was Africa, for Richard Von Weizsaecker it was Germany's approach to its history. These presidents made their mark that way and they represented the country with dignity. Horst Koehler made a crucial contribution to the good reputation of Germany in Africa. For that matter, the underdog candidate Gauck had his own such theme - freedom.

With Christian Wulff, so far there is no recognizable theme. He is first and foremost the politician of a party. His office - the highest of the German state - has become prey to the interests of party political power and, with it, has suffered severe damage.

At the same time, it is no alternative to hand the choice of president over to the people. How would a president be able to unite the country after a wearing election campaign? It would be more sensible to pose the question of whether or not Germany still needs this position at all.

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