A spat over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s appointment of Joachim Gauck as Germany’s next president has cast a shadow over her coalition, potentially hurting her government in its remaining 19 months.
Merkel’s Free Democratic Party coalition partner broke ranks with the chancellor on Feb. 19, joining the opposition by throwing its weight behind Gauck -- a former protestant pastor and East German dissident -- even after Merkel expressed initial objections to him. Gauck had lost the presidency in 2010 to Christian Wulff, Merkel’s choice for the position, who resigned a week ago amid corruption allegations.
“You don’t forget something like this,” Wolfgang Bosbach, a lawmaker in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and chairman of the domestic affairs committee in parliament, said in an interview in Berlin yesterday. “It’s burdened the atmosphere, as far as political work goes. We’ll see what happens.”
The public division on the choice for Germany’s mainly ceremonial head-of-state could weigh on Merkel’s government as it pushes through measures such as a second bailout for Greece and possible additional funding for other indebted euro-area nations. FDP Chairman Philipp Roesler, the economy minister, confirmed an altercation between himself and Merkel in the chancellery as the coalition sifted through possible candidates.
“The response was tough,” Roesler told Die Welt newspaper in a Feb. 21 interview, when asked what Merkel’s reaction was to the FDP’s support. Roesler defended his party’s choice of the 72-year-old Gauck, who was in charge of opening up communist East Germany’s Stasi secret-police files after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
While party members have pledged that Merkel’s CDU, her Christian Social Union Bavarian sister party and the pro- business FDP will press on, lawmakers say the acrimony is bound to take its toll on the coalition’s working relationship.
“It’s obvious that if something like this happens, it doesn’t really contribute to trust within the coalition,” Michael Kretschmer, a deputy caucus leader for the CDU in the lower house of parliament, said in a Feb. 21 interview.
The FDP, which won 14.6 percent of the vote in Germany’s September 2009 elections, has seen its support plummet. A Forsa survey from Feb. 22 placed the party’s support at 2 percent, not enough to win any seats in parliament, while the CDU remained at 38 percent for the third week. The next elections are due to be held in September 2013 at the latest.
The FDP’s maneuvering on Gauck was an “act of desperation” that won’t win the party’s voters back, Manfred Guellner, head of Berlin-based Forsa, said by phone. The spat makes it more likely that the coalition will end next year, he said.
FDP Written Off
“Merkel has written off the FDP,” Guellner said. “The communication and the cooperation will become a lot frostier.”
Gauck now goes forward to a special assembly for election on March 18. By accepting Gauck, nominated in 2010 by the main opposition Social Democrats and the Green Party, Merkel’s government can be assured of the election of a candidate polls show to be popular with the public.
The son of a sailor who was sent to a Soviet Gulag for more than three years in the 1950s, Gauck was raised in the Baltic Sea port city of Rostock and became a leading figure of East Germany’s anti-communist opposition in 1989. Gauck later gained a reputation as Germany’s leading “Stasi hunter” for his work in overseeing the opening of millions of files kept by informants of the communist-era Ministry of State Security.
After the political parties agreed on Gauck last week, Merkel reached him on his mobile phone while he was in a taxi. “Overcome and a little confused,” Gauck described diverting the cab to the Federal Chancellery. Merkel gave little indication of her initial reservations.
“The central issue in the public life of Joachim Gauck has been that of freedom and responsibility, and that’s what connects me to him personally, despite our differences,” Merkel, Germany’s first eastern chancellor, told reporters.
If Gauck is elected, Europe’s biggest economy will be headed by a chancellor and president who both grew up behind the Iron Curtain in the former East Bloc.
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