The second vote for Germany's next president has again been indecisive. The coalition government's candidate has twice failed to secure an absolute majority. In the third round, a simple majority will suffice.
Three candidates but only two have a chance of winning
The vote for Germany's next president is going into a third and final round. The Conservative candidate and favorite, Christian Wulff received only 600 votes in the first round, 23 short of the absolute majority he needed. In the second, Wulff climbed to 615, still eight votes shy of the winning post.
In the third round, a simple majority - which Wulff has comfortably held in both ballots so far - will suffice for victory.
Wulff is the candidate of Chancellor Merkel's center-right coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats. These parties hold a majority in the 1,244-seat voting assembly, with 644 delegates, meaning that unanimous support within the government would have sufficed to elect Wulff definitively.
This mini-rebellion in the back benches is seen by many as a major blow to the Berlin government. Wulff's campaign was also shaken by the strong opposition candidate, Joachim Gauck.
In Gauck, the center-left coalition had fielded a competitor who has managed to win more popular support than Wullf. A former civil rights activist, who fought against communist oppression in the former East Germany, Gauck is held in high esteem across party lines.
Gauck received 499 votes in the first round and 490 in the second, 39 and 30 more than expected. In total, the opposition Social Democrats and Greens - who put Gauck forward as a candidate - only command 460 votes.
"I think it's very, very positive that we are really having a vote," Green Party chairwoman, Claudia Roth told the Phoenix news channel, referring to the willingness of some government backbenchers to break ranks.
"We're not electing a government today, but rather the best possible president for Germany."
To have any chance of victory, Gauck will have to win over the supporters of Left Party third candidate, Lukrezia Jochimsen. However, the group had ruled out supporting Gauck before the ballot. Despite the surprise first round setback, Wulff remains clear favorite for the post.
Germany's 1,244-seat Federal Convention assembled in Berlin to cast their vote on Germany's next head of state. One month after former president Horst Koehler stepped down in a surprise resignation, there are three nominees competing to succeed him in what so far has proved to be a very interesting vote.
Usually, the ruling coalition would have presented its candidate for the largely ceremonial presidency and the June 30 vote would have been little more than a formality. Opposition parties can field a competitor but normally have little chance of success.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel's nominee came as a surprise: Christian Wulff is seen by many as a rather colorless conservative state premier.
Merkel's president of choice is Lower Saxony State Premier Christian Wulff
Merkel described Wulff as "a person I got to know during the time of Germany's reunification. He is someone who is willing to try out new paths, someone who's creative and open towards others. At the same time he's someone who is rooted in a value system providing orientation."
Christian Wulff served as state premier of Lower Saxony for seven years and is also deputy party chairman of Merkel's Christian Democrats.
Wulff himself stressed that he would seek to transcend party divisions in his new post. "I think that it is possible to bring people together, to do something for the solidarity in our society, to give people courage and optimism when times are difficult."
Politician versus civil rights activist
But not everyone is convinced. Wulff is seen in many quarters as a party politician deeply rooted in Merkel's Christian Democrats.
When the center-left opposition fielded its candidate, it seemed they had pulled off what Merkel had failed to do. Their man, Joachim Gauck, is not affiliated to any party but was a civil rights activist who fought against communist oppression in East Germany.
Gauck insists that his candidacy should not be seen as being directed against Merkel
He later became director of the archives of the countless files left behind by the East's former secret police, the Stasi. Gauck is a candidate who is respected across the political spectrum and therefore in a good position to win support also from the members of Merkel's governing coalition.
"Joachim Gauck is a candidate with a remarkable record behind him," Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel said. "The coalition's nominee Wulff only has a political career."
Underdog enjoys popular support
Polls showed that Joachim Gauck enjoyed greater popular support than Wulff and German media have been speculating for days what a potential defeat for Merkel's nominee would mean for the government in Berlin.
The relentless squabbling in Merkel's coalition has seen her come under fire in recent weeks and a few members of the Free Democrats in eastern Germany came out in support of Gauck.
The largely ceremonial president will for 5 years reside in Berlin's Bellevue castle
"I have in my life seen things happen that were deemed very unlikely," a relaxed Gauck said about his chances to actually make it. "So I am going into this vote with happy composure."
Not an attack
Also in the fray is a third candidate, nominated by the far-left Left Party who said they would vote for neither of the two main candidates. But their nominee Luc Jochimsen has no chance of coming even close to winning.
Should Joachim Gauck indeed manage to cause a major upset and win, then some commentators are predicting Merkel's government in Berlin could fall.
Yet Gauck himself was the first to come out and dispel such concerns. "I am appalled by this idea in the press that a successful candidacy on my part is an attack on the chancellor," he said.
But Gauck added that the next president would have to deal with public disillusionment in German politics. "The German people have a deep longing for credibility in politics," he said.
Author: Peter Stuetzle (ai/AFP/Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner