Merkel Free to Focus on Elections After Germans Choose President

Chancellor Angela Merkel
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been freed to focus on issues likely to shape her chances of a third term after changing sides to ensure the election of Joachim Gauck as the country’s 11th postwar president.

Merkel can concentrate on three forthcoming state elections and euro area crisis-fighting. With her Free Democrat coalition allies backing Gauck, a candidate she initially opposed, it also enables her to dodge a conflict within government which might have dented her record-high approval ratings.

“She’s like Teflon,” Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING Groep in Brussels, said in an interview. “Everything that could have been blamed on her hasn’t affected her at all.” Merkel “has shown that she can sit things out.”

Yesterday’s decision means that Europe’s biggest economy is headed for the first time by both a chancellor and president who grew up behind the Iron Curtain. A special federal assembly of national and state politicians convened in Berlin elected Gauck with 991 of the 1,232 ballots cast.

The election of Gauck, 72, a former pastor and East German anti-communist activist, was the second vote for the mainly ceremonial post in less than two years. Gauck was the main opposition candidate in 2010, when he lost to Christian Wulff, Merkel’s pick. Wulff quit on Feb. 17 to face a criminal probe that may lead to corruption charges. He denies any wrongdoing.

Nazi Hunter

His main opponent this time was Beate Klarsfeld, 73. The German-born, Paris-based Nazi hunter was nominated by the anti-capitalist Left party. With Merkel’s coalition and two opposition parties backing Gauck, his election was assured.

Gauck, the son of a sailor who was sent to a Soviet Gulag for more than three years in the 1950s, grew up in the Baltic Sea port city of Rostock and became a leading figure in East Germany’s anti-communist opposition in 1989. He 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.

“Out of the joy of liberation came the joy and obligation to take on duties,” Gauck said after the vote.

After expressing reservations about the opposition’s support for Gauck, Merkel backed down last month when the Free Democrats, her junior coalition ally, supported him. By retreating and moving on, she tamped down a domestic distraction as European leaders were struggling to craft a second bailout for Greece.

Euro Bailouts

An Emnid poll on March 11 showed national support for her bloc at 36 percent, the best level since 2008. Her FDP ally, which has seen voter support collapse amid leadership changes and a split over its stance on euro bailouts, had 3 percent backing, against almost 15 percent in 2009. The main opposition Social Democrats had 28 percent support and the Greens 14 percent.

“She checked it off the list in a hurry,” Manfred Guellner, head of the Berlin-based Forsa polling firm, said of the Gauck spat. “It didn’t harm the high approval she enjoys. When Merkel is alone on the stage saving the euro, that’s when she scores points.”

Next stop for Merkel is Saarland, where voters cast ballots on March 25 in the first of three German state elections this yea, followed by the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein on May 6. North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous region with almost a quarter of the country’s 82 million people, will also vote the same day. It’s a bellwether for the respective parties’ national fortunes ahead of a federal election due next year. While not yet scheduled, that vote will probably also take place in May.

Dead Heat

Merkel’s position is a turnaround from last year, when her national coalition was defeated or lost votes in all seven state elections as Germany’s involvement in the crisis stemming from Greece made it the biggest contributor to euro-region bailouts.

Polls now show the CDU and Social Democrats in a dead heat in Saarland, suggesting the CDU and SPD will govern the region bordering France and Luxembourg in a “grand coalition,” mirroring Merkel’s first-term government.

That’s a constellation Germans like because they favor cooperation among the two biggest parties rather than conflict, making another grand coalition a possible outcome of the next national election in 18 months, Forsa’s Guellner said.

With the Free Democrats decimated, Merkel sought agreement with the opposition to find a presidential candidate, who is elected by the assembly meeting at the Reichstag building in Berlin.

The chancellor’s majority in the assembly narrowed to as little as two seats from 21 seats in 2010, when Wulff defeated Gauck, according to election website

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