Merkel’s candidate elected German president |

Merkel’s candidate elected German president

BERLIN (AP) – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s candidate was elected German president Wednesday in a lackluster victory that took an embarrassing three rounds of voting and dashed hopes of a strong show of support from her governing coalition.

Christian Wulff, a 51-year-old deputy leader of Merkel’s conservative party, won 625 votes in a special parliamentary assembly compared to 494 for opposition candidate Joachim Gauck; 121 delegates abstained – mostly from the Left Party, which had withdrawn its own candidate in the final round.

Wulff, a former state governor, led in every round of the secret ballot but was unable to garner the absolute majority needed in the first two rounds as members of Merkel’s own coalition broke ranks to support his opponent.

He needed only a simple majority to win the third round, though the coalition came together to give Wulff an absolute majority and spared Merkel the ignominy of not being able to get her choice confirmed. Nineteen members of the coalition did not vote for Wulff.

Wulff, a lawyer and career politician with a clean-cut, inoffensive image, sounded an optimistic note after his election.

“I’m looking forward to this responsible position,” he said. Gauck, a former East German human rights activist who is widely respected, congratulated Wulff on his victory.

The governing coalition had hoped to show strength after a strife-riven start since it took office in October.

The coalition with the Free Democrats has been hit by constant squabbling over policy, while the eurozone debt crisis forced it to push through an austerity drive and unpopular rescue packages for Germany’s European partners.

“Today’s events clearly show that Merkel can’t hold together her majority,” Werner Weidenfeld, a political science professor at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University, told The Associated Press.

The center-right coalition wanted to stage a renewal following a successful presidential election and Merkel hoped to silence critics of her leadership, he said. “But now the infighting will continue.”

The contest for the presidency, a largely ceremonial but symbolically important job, added another layer to the coalition’s troubles of late – fueling speculation in recent weeks that a loss for Wulff would push it to the brink of collapse.

But in a brief statement, the chancellor brushed off any doubts surrounding the coalition’s unity. “What counts is that we now have a new president, and a president who was elected with absolute majority,” Merkel said.

“Christian Wulff will be a wonderful representative for this country,” she said.

The first round, however, came as a major embarrassment to Merkel as Gauck and the Left Party’s candidate combined got more votes than Wulff.

Wolfgang Bosbach, a leading lawmaker with Merkel’s Christian Democrats, expressed regret that the alliance hasn’t shown the unity “that would significantly have stabilized the coalition.”

“Perhaps one or two people wanted to send a political signal to the leadership” of the coalition parties, Bosbach said. “Great idea, wrong day.”

Wulff has been governor of Lower Saxony – a region of some 8 million people that occupies a large swath of Germany’s northwest – since 2003. Wulff lost state elections in 1994 and 1998 to center-left rival Gerhard Schroeder, who went on to become chancellor. In 1998, he won on the third attempt.

On accepting the presidency, Wulff announced his resignation as governor of Lower Saxony.

Wulff was long considered a potential rival to Merkel as party leader, but has talked down his chances of ever becoming chancellor in 2008, when he said that “I lack the absolute will to power and the readiness to subordinate everything to it.”

Wulff has a teenage daughter from his first marriage and a young son, born in 2008, with his second wife. He replaces Horst Koehler, nominated by Merkel in 2004, who abruptly stepped down May 31.