The damage control president
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to nominate Christian Wulff as president was an act of damage control. But his difficult election on Wednesday has ended up tarnishing both her beleaguered government and Germany’s new head of state.
Germany’s presidency might be a largely ceremonial post, but you don’t see anyone clamouring to make Thomas Gottschalk head of state.
The country’s famous host of a TV show based on making bets certainly would be great at smiling and shaking the hands of incoming ambassadors, or visiting projects for neglected inner-city children. But the highest public office in the republic doesn’t merely require a master of ceremonies and Germans deserve more than a placeholder president.
Unfortunately, after his unconvincing election on Wednesday, that’s exactly what Christian Wulff is likely to be.
Nominated by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s troubled centre-right coalition to replace Horst Köhler after his shock resignation in May, Wulff was considered a safe set of hands. After months of turbulence and friction within Merkel’s government, the moderate Christian Democrat was to be the damage control president, if you will.
But the candidacy of the grey state politician from Lower Saxony failed to take off and Wulff was quickly overshadowed by his popular opponent, Joachim Gauck. A former pastor and respected East German civil rights activist, Gauck even found plenty of support within the ranks of Merkel’s own conservatives and their junior coalition partners the Free Democrats (FDP).
It took three rounds of voting for Wulff to beat Gauck, who was nominated by the opposition Social Democrats and Greens, even though Merkel’s centre-right coalition held a solid majority of the seats in the Federal Assembly.
Wulff’s public humiliation was the price Merkel paid for choosing someone still involved in partisan politics rather than looking for a presidential candidate with broader societal appeal – but it was just another in a long line of hamfisted decisions her coalition has made in its short nine-month existence.
Gauck, with his compelling life story and impressive rhetorical skills, became the people’s president over the past month. Had he been elected he could have used the presidency’s bully pulpit like few others to inspire, cajole and console the nation. Wulff, on the other hand, is set to become the unwanted head of state of an unloved government.
There will be no fresh start for Merkel and her ally, FDP boss Guido Westerwelle. Their weakened coalition will limp on and Wulff may eventually gain more acceptance as president, but the damage is done.
However, this debacle for the government can’t simply be chalked up to a pointed political victory for the left-wing opposition.
By picking Gauck, the Social Democrats and Greens showed just how much daylight remains between them and the socialist Left party, which refused to back their candidate. The Left, with its roots in the communist party of East Germany, simply could not warm up to a man who once headed the archive sifting through the files of the Stasi, the country’s notorious secret police.
Merkel’s centre-right alliance might be wounded, but there’s no workable left-wing majority on the horizon. Unlike on Gottschalk’s TV show, no one has won their bet this time. Germany has the lesser president and everyone loses.