This week, Germany got a new president: Christian Wulff, an uncharismatic politician who until then had been content to rule the state of Lower Saxony, home of Volkswagen. The German president played an unhappy role in the Weimar Republic, and the post is a ceremonial one without any power. He or she is elected by an assembly dominated by the political parties. Since the governing coalition under Angela Merkel had a majority in the assembly, Wulff’s election should have been a matter of form, and the whole election little more than a political blip, considering the drama unfolding in South Africa at the football World Cup. However, things turned out very differently. The circumstances of Wulff’s election may prove to be the death-knell of Angela Merkel’s ill-starred second term as chancellor.
For a start, the election was the result of an embarrassment. Wulff’s predecessor, Horst Köhler, had resigned in a huff following criticism of some remarks he made while visiting German troops in Afghanistan. (He had said, quite rightly, that an international trading nation such as Germany had an interest in guaranteeing stability and open trade routes all over the world, if necessary by military means. This was construed as a call for gunboat diplomacy.) Merkel had to come up with an ersatz president quickly, and so she did. Wulff was nominated within a couple of days.
However, this quick fix turned out to be a mistake.
Many members of Merkel’s fractious coalition of conservatives (CDU) and liberal democrats (FDP) were angry that they hadn’t been consulted and began to look at the presidential election as a chance to get their own back. When the social democrat (SPD) and Green opposition parties realised this and nominated as their candidate a bona fide conservative named Joachim Gauck, a hero of the East German revolution and a friend of Merkel, as their candidate, all hell broke loose. There was open talk of rebellion in the ranks of the CDU and the FDP among disaffected backbenchers. On the day of the election, Wulff failed to get the majority he needed in the first two rounds. Members of Merkel’s coalition had used the secret ballot to challenge her candidate and, by extension, her leadership.
Wulff finally squeezed through in the third and final round, because the neo-communists refused to vote for Gauck, who made his reputation as a Stasi-hunter, setting up and leading the institution responsible for documenting the crimes of East Germany’s secret police. Had they voted with the social democrats and the Greens, Wulff would have lost, and Merkel would in all probability have been forced to resign.
So we are left with a conservative chancellor who owes her president and her own job to the extreme left – which is an extreme embarrassment.
And not only that: Merkel had wanted to use the election to prove that she could discipline her coalition, which is bickering about almost everything, from healthcare reform to tax cuts for hoteliers, from the revamping of the armed forces to subsidies for the automobile industry. She proved the opposite. For the first time since her narrow victory over Gerhard Schröder in 2005, Merkel looks vulnerable. And, politics being what it is, perceived weakness breeds real weakness.
The funny thing is, Germany is doing quite nicely, thank you. It came through the crisis virtually unscathed, industry and exports are booming, tax revenues are going to be higher than expected, and it’s the Americans and Brits who are taking the brunt of the fighting in Afghanistan. Also, the weather is fine, holiday time is approaching, and our team are doing well (touch wood) in the World Cup. Why there is an almost general disaffection and grumpiness is hard to explain – but there is, and Merkel seems at a loss to do anything about it. Many observers – including myself – thought that Merkel would use her second term to earn herself the title of Germany’s Maggie Thatcher. Now she looks more like Germany’s Gordon Brown.
Alan Posener, a correspondent and commentator for Die Welt and Welt am Sonntag in Berlin and one of Germany’s most influential bloggers.