After the abrupt resignation of President Horst Köhler on Monday, talk turned quickly to his successor. First, Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen was seen as the obvious bet. But within 24 hours, the common wisdom had swung around to backing Christian Wulff, also from the conservative Christian Democratic Union.
Sure enough, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her coalition party leaders, Christian Social Union head Horst Seehofer and Free Democrats leader Guido Westerwelle, announced Thursday night that Wulff was their pick to take up residency at Schloss Bellevue.
Meanwhile, the centre-left Social Democrats and environmentalist Greens joined forces to nominate Protestant pastor and former dissident in communist East Germany, Joachim Gauck. Though he is not aligned with any party, Gauck has won respect across the political spectrum as Federal Commissioner for the secret police archives of the Stasi.
German media have reacted with mixed feelings towards Wulff's candidacy, with some questioning the politicisation of the presidential office and others warning there were pitfalls for Merkel.
The left-wing Berliner Zeitung wrote:
“The irritating, embarrassing and, on the whole, amateurish departure of Horst Köhler has found its worthy continuation in the irritating, embarrassing and on the whole – as in the detail – amateurish back-and-forth within the party to choose the successor.
“In the Union, the voices had spoken out against Ursula von der Leyen, who was successful in the last legislative period as family minister. These voices were invariably male, and they bemoaned the prospect – horrible to speak about – of Germany led by two women in the nation's highest offices.
“But evidently Wulff's intention to set up residence in the capital, and the broad support he found in other Christian Democratic premiers, was decisive.”
Populist daily Bild praised both candidates but warned there were pitfalls for Merkel:
“This isn't over yet! Career politician from the West against pastor from the East – four days after Horst Köhler's flight from office, the race for the highest office in the land emerges as a political sensation.
For in Joachim Gauck, the SPD and Greens are sending not only a highly regarded and clever contemporary to take up residence in Schloss Bellevue. The renowned Stasi hunter is a candidate who could be dangerous for the favourite Christian Wulff.
Even conservative delegates from the CDU and CSU can without difficulty choose the non party-aligned man of God. There are enough discontented members of the CDU/CSU and FDP who want to get one over the Chancellor.
And candidate Gauck isn't someone from the political establishment who has slogged his way through the crucible of a political career. That is precisely what people valued in Horst Köhler. One thing is clear: Wulff or Gauck, whoever is victorious on June 30, Germany will be the winner.”
The conservative Hamburger Abendblatt argued that Wulff's power play would end up helping Merkel and von der Leyen:
Wulff has duped Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen – Germany's most powerful women at the moment – with his power manoeuvre. Nevertheless, these women are the winners of the tough search for a candidate.
Merkel will argue that Wulff had been her recommendation – a heavyweight with plenty of experience and therefore just the candidate that's called for. In fact Merkel was not able to get her real number one through; instead she has managed to get rid of a possible successor to the Chancellery.
And the labour minister, who most Germans would have preferred to see in Schloss Bellevue, is from now on the chancellor in reserve.”
A commentary in right-wing broadsheet Die Welt argued that in fact Gauck was the better pick:
“A president must not be chosen from among the party members. Right away, therefore, the non-aligned Gauck would be a better choice than CDU man Wulff.
Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle have … not considered that people didn't simply want to see the empty presidential office filled. They wanted to feel that the politicians reacted with seriousness to the drama this week. They didn't ask for a conflict-denying, all-party consensus, but rather an effort to fill the office of president with an appropriate dignity.
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This doesn't seem to be the case. Because the government camp has crudely rushed through in a party-political fashion, the presidency of Wulff would be tainted with the flaw of being a quick and dirty.
Joachim Gauck by contrast is a good and conciliatory suggestion from the red-green opposition. It is good that he doesn't come from the red-red-green camp. It is good that he can make friends not only with Social Democrats and Greens but also with Christian Democrats and conservatives.
He embodies, with charm and dignity, the experience of liberty. It is to be desired that he becomes the 10th president of Germany.”
And conservative broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung bemoaned Merkel's weakness in not pursuing her own course:
“Wulff's candidacy shows the acute weakness of the Chancellor and it thwarts Merkel's strategy for a decision made by her alone.
The aversion to backing her own course of action has branded the East German politician from the start.”