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Don't cry Wulff

Germany’s new president, Christian Wulff, pretends he’s not damaged goods, despite marking a new low for Merkel. The Social Democrats run a human rights advocate against Wulff, and nearly win. Bank stress tests cause shutter. And high temperatures frustrate Germans.


All smiles and optimism, you’d never know it from Christian Wulff’s  first days as president that he was neither Germany’s first choice for the job nor that his contested election marked a mortifying, all-time low for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative government.  With his pretty, 36-year old, blonde wife, Bettina, next to him on the steps of Berlin’s Bellvue Palace, he bubbled over about Germany’s new-look, multiethnic soccer team, even if it didn’t win the World Cup. No matter. Nor has the economic crisis or any of the other bad news that has dragged the government down seem to dampen his spirits. Germany’s new president was happy to be president – very happy – no matter the circumstances of his getting there.

Wulff, a leading Christian Democrat from northern Lower Saxony, was elected to the largely figurehead post in the final days of June, in the wake of a bruising campaign that further battered a divided coalition government that had desperately hoped that better days were around the corner. The surprise resignation of the incumbent president, Horst Koehler, had been the most recent body blow, which some observers whispered was the “beginning of the end” of Merkel’s reign (after so recently having been likened to Helmut Kohl who held onto power for 16 full years.) Since Wulff’s candidacy was at Merkel’s personal behest – and since her ruling team of Christian democrats and free-market liberals possess two-thirds of the Federal Assembly’s votes – his victory should have been a done deal even before the race got underway. That’s the way it usually is with German presidents.  

But for the first time ever it wasn’t that way. In a brilliant political maneuver, the opposition Social Democrats nominated the Protestant pastor and former east German human rights activist Joachim Gauck to stand against Wulff. Gauck belongs to no party and calls himself a “conservative-liberal-social democrat.” He made his name in post-Wall Germany as the man who presided over the administration of Stasi files, the archive of the former East German secret police, which was seen as a key process in coming to terms with the past of the East German dictatorship.

As it turned out, Gauck’s popularity among Germans — even some of those in the ruling conservative parties — was significantly greater than that of Wulff, a successful regional figure but not well-known on a national level. Many of the liberal Free Democrats immediately announced their support of Gauck rather than Wulff. Opinion polls showed that most Germans preferred Gauck. In the short camapign period Gauck gave his largely symbolic run all he had, making a whirlwind national tour that gobbled up huge chunks of media time.

When the Federal Assembly convened on June 30, there was little doubt that Wulff would eventually prevail — but no one thought it would be nowhere near as tough and damaging as it was. In the fist two rounds of voting, Wulff failed to get the necessary two thirds of the ballots. The media flashed images of Merkel looking extremely vexed. Her own people were holding back their votes, a personal, embarrassing slap for a chancellor who had been looking weaker by the month since her overwhelming election late last year.

Finally, in the third go-around, Wulff received a simple majority, which in the final round was enough to put him past into the office of President of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Despite Wulff’s sunny disposition – and new polls that show Germans like him as president, more than they thought they would – Merkel’s coailtion remains in deep crisis. Surveys show that were national elections held today, the country’s three left-wing wing parties (the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the socialist Left Party) would easily oust the conservatives. The recent vote in Germany’s largest state, North Rhine Westphalia, brought a Social Democrat-Green government to power.

Even so, Merkel and her Christian Democrats probably have more life left in them. No matter what happens to this coalition – it may indeed not last its four-year term – the Christian democrats remain the largest, most popular party and will almost surely lead whatever coalition follows the current one.

Money:  A brief shutter went through Germany’s banking system when some of the criteria of the stress tests, which the Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) will conduct in July, were make public.

The aim of the tests is to evaluate the extent to which Europe’s bank are prepared to deal with a worst-case, aggravated debt crisis. According to a report of the business daily the Handelsblatt, as many as 10 to 15 percent of the European banks undergoing the tests are likely to fail them, even though the criteria have been greatly watered down over the course of the summer. Among the possible flunkies include several German banks.

Elsewhere:  For the second week running, temperatures in Germany have exceeded 90 degrees. Despite the fact that this heat wave comes on the heels of the coldest winter in 20 years, it is testing the patience of Germans and capacity of Germany’s infrastructure. Most Germans do not have air conidioning. (In fact, I don’t know a single person who does and indeed most offices don’t either.) Quite simply, it’s rarely necessary, particularly in Berlin, which is known for some very cold summers.

Trains do have AC but last week breakdowns caused temperatures in one train to soar to over 100 degrees. By the time it arrived at its desitation over 40 people had to be treated for dehydration.

Apparently, people aren’t the only ones suffering. Lack of oxygen in the lakes is causing fish to go bottom up in Berlin’s waterways. There is no end in sight to the sweltering temperatures.