June 9, 2010 / 12:13 PM / in 8 years

Germans want opposition president in blow to Merkel

* Big embarrassment for Merkel if her candidate loses

* Unpopular and angry, FDP allies threaten rebellion

BERLIN, June 9 (Reuters) - German voters prefer the opposition’s candidate for president — an anti-communist activist from East Germany — to Angela Merkel’s choice, a poll showed on Wednesday, dealing a fresh blow to the chancellor.

The Forsa survey showed Joachim Gauck, proposed for the largely ceremonial post by the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, won the support of 42 percent of Germans asked, compared with 32 percent for conservative Christian Wulff.

A special assembly, made up of lawmakers from the Bundestag lower house and an equal number of delegates appointed by Germany’s 16 states, will elect a new president on June 30 after last week’s shock resignation of Horst Koehler. He quit after he was criticised for saying foreign military action by the German army also served economic interests. [ID:nLDE64U1MF]

The vote is shaping up as a big test for Merkel who has been dogged by falling popularity, policy spats in her centre-right coalition and accusations of weak leadership both domestically and within the euro zone during the global debt crisis.

A failure by Merkel to push through Wulff, the 50-year-old smooth-talking conservative premier of the state of Lower Saxony, would be widely viewed as a major defeat for her.

Merkel’s coalition of conservatives and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) have a majority in the assembly but victory is not certain, especially in view of the public and media mood.

Der Spiegel weekly and top-selling Bild am Sonntag back Gauck, a former Protestant pastor who played an important role in the democracy movement in the communist East. After reunification he won respect when, as head of the archives of the loathed Stasi East German secret police, he oversaw the release of files to victims.

One problem for Merkel is that the assembly delegates chosen by German states are unpredictable as they are not formally aligned to parties.

In addition, some FDP members from eastern German states have said they will not necessarily back Wulff, even though the FDP leadership has given him its blessing.

This is partly a result of growing anger in FDP ranks at the behaviour of Merkel’s conservatives.

Last month Merkel unceremoniously ditched tax cuts her party had agreed with the FDP in a coalition deal signed just six months earlier. The FDP had fought the election on tax cuts.

She also let the Bavarian conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) torpedo her FDP health minister’s plans for a major health reform last week.

Since then, a war of words has erupted with an FDP lawmaker likening the CSU to a destructive “wild sow” only for a senior CSU politician to accuse the FDP of being a “bunch of clowns”.

The Forsa poll also showed support for the FDP slumping to 5 percent, down 2 percentage points from the last poll and nearly 10 percentage points since September’s election.

It also for the first time put Merkel behind charismatic Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in personal ratings.

The debate over the president has reflected badly on Merkel.

Not only has strong support for Gauck raised questions about her judgement in proposing a career politician like Wulff but she also faces attack for playing a part in Koehler’s departure.

Critics say her failure to defend him from media criticism contributed to his decision to quit, especially as he had been Merkel’s personal choice for president back in 2004.

Media have also reported that Wulff’s nomination was a blow to Merkel whose first choice, Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen, was blocked by conservative state premiers. (Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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