Monday, November 29, 1999

Merkel rival says Germany needs credible figurehead

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Germany longs for credible leaders again because of the mistrust politicians have sown, according to the man who could cost Chancellor Angela Merkel her job if he is elected president this month.Joachim Gauck, a 70-year-old Protestant pastor standing as the main opposition candidate for head of state, said on Wednesday the German people were searching for someone dependable who could articulate their concerns."(Voters) want credible people at the top of politics, people they can trust," Gauck told Berlin's foreign press association. "They've now had so many reasons for mistrust that they could use someone again who could (restore trust).""That may be at the heart of what people expect of me and where I can have an influence."Many analysts say a Gauck victory on June 30 may spell the end of Merkel's five-year chancellorship, and possibly the government, just as Germany struggles to help Europe out of a debt crisis that is threatening the euro currency.He is taking on the government's candidate, career politician Christian Wulff, in a run-off that is increasingly viewed as a referendum on Merkel's centre-right coalition, whose popularity has slumped to its lowest ebb.Support for the chancellor herself is also at a record low. An Infratest dimap survey showed only 12 percent of Germans are content with her coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU) and Free Democrats (FDP).Nearly half of the voters polled wanted new elections.Cracking jokes, Gauck talked down his chances of winning the largely ceremonial post vacated at the end of May by the sudden resignation of Horst Koehler. But he said his prospects had improved in the past week, citing favourable media coverage."If Gauck is elected I think the chancellor and vice chancellor (FDP leader Guido Westerwelle) will go. There will be a palace revolution in the CDU and FDP," said Hans Vorlaender, a political scientist at the University of Dresden."But I don't think there will be new elections. That would lead to huge losses for the CDU and the FDP and I don't think their members of parliament will allow it."Gauck, a prominent human rights activist in East Germany, is respected on both the left and right of German politics. He is not expected to win the election despite polls showing he enjoys more popular support than Wulff.However, amid ructions in the coalition, some FDP lawmakers have threatened to back Gauck when a federal assembly convenes to vote on the presidency. This would throw into doubt what on paper should have been a comfortable majority for Merkel.Not formally tied to any party, Gauck stressed he would not seek to undermine Merkel's government if elected.However, he conceded the opposition centre-left Social Democrats and Greens had nominated him for "tactical" reasons."But I'm quite sure Mrs Merkel doesn't see my candidacy as an attack on her government," he said. "I can't imagine the federal assembly is coming together to hold a vote on the coalition or the performance of Mrs Merkel's government."(Editing by Robert Woodward)

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