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We're going to hear now about a serious political test for the once hugely popular German chancellor, Angela Merkel. It's something that normally would be pretty routine - a vote today in the Germany federal assembly on the largely ceremonial post of president.
That vote, though, comes after months of tension with Merkel's ruling coalition. Her popularity has tumbled just when many are looking to Germany for strong leadership to tackle Europe's financial crisis. From Berlin, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Just last fall, after winning the election, there were smiles all around as Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats joined forces with the pro-business Free Democrats to create a ruling coalition, one that officials promised would be more proactive and focused than the somewhat awkward grand coalition that Merkel had shared with the center-left Social Democrats.
Instead, the coalition's intervening nine months have been marked by political and personal infighting, petty distractions, even name-calling. The relationship seemed to go further off the rails earlier this month when the Free Democrats and a wing of Merkel's party traded public insults, with phrases such as "wild sow" and "bumbling idiots" pushing coalition relations to a new low point.
Professor GERO NEUGEBAUER (Free University of Berlin): The public is asking, what are they talking about? It's really nonsense.
WESTERVELT: Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, says the coalition's squabbling has damaged Chancellor Merkel's ability to govern - just when many are looking to Europe's biggest economy to show leadership in tackling the sovereign debt crisis. The ongoing disputes have led many to question whether her coalition will last its full four year term.
Merkel's main hold on power now, Neugebauer says, is that few Germans have the stomach for new elections just nine months after the last vote. And the pro-business Free Democrats, he says, seem painfully out of touch with voters. They're preoccupied with power plays, Neugebauer says, and talk endlessly of tax cuts during the biggest financial crisis since the inception of the euro. Less than a year after getting nearly 15 percent of the vote, a new poll this week shows the FDP's popularity has sunk to just four percent.
Dr. NEUGEBAUER: They're out of real life. They don't realize that the electorate wants to know what this party will do in taking up the challenges of the crisis. As long as they focus on themselves, they are not interesting for the voter.
WESTERVELT: Over the weekend, the leader of the Free Democrats, Guido Westerwelle, urged party members to tone down their rhetoric. Westerwelle, Germany's foreign minister, also urged his party to unite behind Chancellor Merkel's choice for president - a respected, but colorless party stalwart from Merkel's Christian Democrats, named Christian�Wulff. If Wulff loses, many analysts think it could be a fatal blow to the already fractious coalition.
The opposition Social Democrats and the Greens came up with a strong candidate of their own - a charismatic Lutheran clergyman and former anticommunist human rights activist named Joachim�Gauck. He won the respect of many Germans for overseeing the opening up of the archives of the Stasi - the dreaded East German secret police - after reunification. In a Berlin speech last week, Gauck moved many in remembering his first time voting, saying I waited 50 years for what we now take for granted.
Mr. JOACHIM�GAUCK (Candidate): (Through translator) I can recall the morning of March 18th, 1990. I exited the polling station with tears of happiness in my eyes. I told the people standing next to me what they already knew: I just voted! For a short moment we felt all the freedom of Europe enter our hearts. And I knew at that moment, that I would never, ever forget to vote in my life.
WESTERVELT: The fact that Gauck is popular doesn't really matter much. The presidential election is by secret ballot in the federal assembly, which is made up of lawmakers and delegates from states. Chancellor Merkel's coalition has a 21-seat majority in the federal assembly, so her candidate Wulff is expected to win.
The parliamentary leader of the social Democrats conceded his candidate wasn't likely to win the presidency. But Thomas Oppermann called the nomination a great political success, because Gauck's candidacy generated public enthusiasm and may even win some defectors from Merkel's fractious coalition.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.
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