BERLIN // Hit by a slump in popularity and acrimonious rifts within her government, the German chancellor Angela Merkel faces the biggest test of her political career on Wednesday when parliament elects a new president. If the candidate she has nominated for the largely ceremonial post, Christian Wulff, fails to win a convincing majority, it would be a serious blow to her authority and the latest sign of a dramatic fall from grace since she was re-elected for a second term last September.
Mr Wulff's majority is looking shaky because even members of Mrs Merkel's own centre-right coalition regard the regional governor as an uninspiring choice compared with the rival put up by the centre-left opposition parties - Joachim Gauck, a charismatic Protestant pastor from eastern Germany who campaigned against the communist dictatorship. The president in Germany is the head of state but his political powers are limited. He or she is elected by a parliamentary assembly of the 622 lawmakers from the lower house, or Bundestag, and an equal number of delegates appointed by the 16 regional states.
Mrs Merkel's coalition has a comfortable majority of more than 20 in the assembly. But several lawmakers within her ranks have said they prefer Mr Gauck and opinion polls show a majority of Germans back him. Wednesday's election became necessary after the surprise resignation of the previous incumbent, Horst Köhler, who was unable to cope with a storm of criticism over remarks he made about the German military mission in Afghanistan.
Political pundits are saying Mrs Merkel would be seriously weakened if Wednesday's vote doesn't go her way, and that she might be ousted by her party or forced to call a new election if Mr Wulff loses. At this stage, such speculation looks exaggerated. But it would be difficult for her to repair the damage, and there would be serious doubt about whether she would win a third term. "If Wulff doesn't get elected it will be the beginning of the end of the coalition," Professor Gerd Langguth, Mrs Merkel's biographer, said in an interview.
Mrs Merkel's decline has been surprising since she cruised to victory in last September's election after a successful first term in which she gained a reputation as an astute leader both at home and in the rest of Europe. But in recent months there has been a growing impression that she is losing her touch. The ?80 billion (Dh363bn) austerity programme she announced this month has drawn fire even from within her own ranks for being socially unjust by cutting benefits for the unemployed and refraining from hiking taxes on the rich.
And she is failing to restore order in her fractious coalition of conservatives and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) who have taken to hurling public abuse at each other over disagreements on healthcare reform, taxation and the future of nuclear power. In the last few weeks, senior officials from the ruling parties have described each other as "wild pigs" and a "bunch of idiots" and the defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, was dismissed by one fellow conservative as "Rumpelstiltskin" for his insistence on scrapping military service. Rumpelstiltskin is a fairy tale dwarf who hopped about angrily and put his foot through the floor when he didn't get what he wanted.
"Mrs Merkel's success in the past has stemmed from the fact that she was in synch with the mainstream, but now she has had to take some deeply unpopular decisions for the first time," said Mr Langguth. "In addition, she hasn't managed to identify a common theme for her coalition. She hasn't said what she really wants. She often just waits to see which way the political wind is blowing before taking a decision."
In other parts of Europe too, the woman once feted as "Mrs Europe" has lost many of the admirers she made in her first term. Known for skillful mediation and tactical shrewdness, Mrs Merkel displayed an unusual lack of judgment in her handling of the Greek debt crisis. Her hesitant response to calls for a bailout to protect the euro single currency damaged Germany's standing as a reliable partner in the EU and weakened her leadership in Europe, even though she ended up pledging the lion's share - ?170 billion - towards rescue packages for Greece and the euro zone.
Mrs Merkel's tough line on Greece also failed to score points with voters at home and her Christian Democrat party lost power in the large state of North Rhine-Westphalia in an election in May. That has deprived her of a majority in the upper house of parliament and will make it harder for her to get legislation passed. Opinion polls have shown a sharp drop in Mrs Merkel's approval ratings and in support for her party. A survey by the Infratest institute in mid-June showed only 40 per cent of Germans were satisfied with her performance, down eight points from the beginning of the month. It was her worst rating since she became chancellor in 2005.
If an election were held now, her coalition would no longer have a majority, polls show. In fact that is the reason she is likely to survive Wednesday's vote even if Mr Wulff were to lose. The prospect of calling and losing an election could restore discipline in her ranks for the time being and thwart a leadership challenge. "If Mr Wulff loses there are two possibilities: either the coalition will get its act together or the in-fighting will increase. This could be Mrs Merkel's twilight," said Mr Langguth.