Leading article: A contested President

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The election of a German President is usually little more than formality. Not this time. The victor was expected to be Christian Wulff, premier of Lower Saxony and self-styled "quiet moderniser" of the centre-right CDU. But yesterday's electoral college ballot was a long way from being business as usual in German politics. Yet, the whole contest was out of the ordinary and weakens the authority of Chancellor Merkel personally, and that of her CDU-FDP coalition.

That Germany needed to elect a new President was unusual in itself. The low-key Horst Köhler, a former managing director of the IMF, was only a year into his second term. But he announced his resignation on 31 May, after saying that the quest for national resources had drawn Germany into foreign wars. Although the presence of German forces in Afghanistan is not popular domestically and the remark could have been construed as a political statement of the kind German presidents are not supposed to make, there was little public outcry and Mr Köhler could probably have stayed on. He chose not to, and an election was called.

The next unusual aspect was that the Opposition SPD chose not to nominate one of their own, joining with the Greens to propose the non-party Joachim Gauck, a leading civil rights campaigner in the former East Germany and director of the Stasi archives. By comparison with Mr Gauck, Ms Merkel's nominee was made to look a lightweight CDU apparatchik. In the latter stages, Mr Gauck's campaign took off to the point where the public started asking why German presidents are elected by an electoral college rather than directly, by universal suffrage.

The third unusual aspect was that the voting went to a second, then a third, ballot, even though the party weighting in the electoral college should have guaranteed Mr Wulff the necessary absolute majority first time round. Clearly, in a direct election, Mr Gauck would have won easily. For many Germans, Mr Wulff, if elected, now risks appearing second-best.

It would be an exaggeration to conclude that Ms Merkel's coalition is now doomed. Mr Gauck insisted that his candidacy should not be seen as a challenge to his fellow former East German. But it is indisputable that, less than a year after her party was re-elected to govern with the coalition partner of her choice, Ms Merkel commands far less authority than she did at the end of her first term – just when the eurozone crisis means she needs that authority most.

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