The new election was made necessary by the resignation of Horst Köhler on May 31, after his comments suggesting German military deployments were commercially motivated caused a public outcry.
Köhler’s resignation came at a particularly bad time for Merkel, whose governing rightwing coalition has been struggling in recent opinion polls.
Support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has dropped to just 32 percent, while their free-marketeer coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP) – who had surged around 15 percent support at the federal election in September last year – have dropped to barely 4 percent, the July 4 Angus Reid Global Monitor reported.
Popular opposition and protests continue to build against Merkel’s austerity measures, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the economic bail-out of Greece as German standards of living continue to decline.
Seeking to further destabilise Merkel, however, the opposition centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens proposed an alternative, Joachim Gauck, whose candidature was almost certain to cause strife in government ranks.
Gauck came to fame as a civil rights advocate and dissident in the former East Germany, and for ten years after German unification he oversaw a state bureau investigating Stasi (East German state security) informants.
Gauck has been criticised, however, for using these investigations to settle personal scores, and has been accused of destroying thousands of careers (and lives – a number of people committed suicide after accusations were laid) of innocent East Germans by relying on hearsay and unsubstantiated verbal accusations, and of exaggerating the degree of many people's collaboration.
As well as attempting to split the votes of Merkel’s coalition by proposing a popular right-wing candidate in Gauck, the SPD were also trying to wedge Die Linke – whose origin lies partially in the former East German ruling party.
Die Linke is now a major force in German politics, and their policies – including a minimum wage, a “rich tax”, an end to the war in Afghanistan and massive cuts in greenhouse gases – have been appealing to large numbers of dissatisfied SPD members, supporters and voters.
Because of his right-wing politics and the fact that the SPD and Greens nominated him without their consultation, Die Linke refused to back Gauck, instead nominating their own candidate, Lukrezia Jochimsen.
The SPD, the Greens and the German media – which ran a fierce pro-Gauck campaign – immediately attacked Die Linke, implausibly attempting to link its refusal to back Gauck with support for the former East German regime.
The German president is chosen by a "Federal Convention" – a joint sitting of both houses of the German parliament along with an equal number of representatives from the States – and the final vote is usually a formality.
Despite holding a slim majority, however, Merkel’s candidate lost the first vote, with 44 members of the government voting instead for Gauck. With 126 votes going to Die Linke’s candidate, neither Wulff nor Gauck had the numbers in the first round. The second round repeated the embarrassment for Merkel, this time 29 members of the government voting for Gauck.
In the third round, Die Linke finally withdrew their candidate, but refused to back either of the remaining right-wing candidates. Die Linke spokesman Gregor Gysi called for an abstention on the vote, but stressed than the final decision on voting was up to Die Linke parliamentarians.
If the SPD were hoping that Die Linke would split over the vote, they were sorely disappointed. Of Die Linke’s 124 representatives, only 3 voted for Gauck while the rest abstained, refusing to fall for the SPD trap.
The rebel CDU members – having made their point – returned to the fold for the last vote, supporting Wulff, who was duly elected president.
Despite getting her candidate elected, however, Merkel emerged as the sole loser from the chamber, and the debacle has been widely interpreted as a vote of no confidence in her leadership by her own government and party.
Merkel’s position is looking increasingly precarious, and her recent political embarrassment is fueling speculation that right-wing CDU heavyweight Roland Koch – who recently resigned as governor of the state of Hesse – may be preparing for a leadership challenge in the near future.