May 23, 2009 / 12:40 PM / in 10 years

Koehler presidential win boosts Merkel's CDU

BERLIN (Reuters) - Former IMF chief Horst Koehler was re-elected as German president on Saturday with a narrow one-vote victory that boosted Chancellor Angela Merkel four months before a parliamentary election.

German President Horst Koehler acknowledges applause by the audience and German Chancellor Angela Merkel before a concert in front of the Berlin Brandenburg Gate to celebrate Germany's 60th anniversary May 23, 2009. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Koehler’s re-election by a special federal assembly in the Reichstag parliament building, ahead of a Social Democrat rival, gave Merkel’s conservatives an important morale-lifting triumph as the campaign for the Sept. 27 vote looms.

He got 613 votes in the 1,224-seat assembly, winning by the narrowest majority in the first of three possible rounds of voting after a testy year-long political battle that put strains on Merkel’s grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD).

“Obviously I’m pleased he won in the first round,” a beaming Merkel said after her conservatives joined forces in the vote with the opposition liberal Free Democrats (FDP)— the party she wants as her coalition partner, replacing the SPD, after the election.

“It’s no secret that we’re eager to have a different majority in parliament (in September). That was our goal here and we accomplished it. It’s good news for Germany.”

Merkel’s CDU has ruled for the past four years in a loveless grand coalition with the SPD, who backed university president Gesine Schwan in Saturday’s vote. The SPD is also eager to see the grand coalition ended.

Koehler’s 613 votes was exactly the number he needed to win re-election as Germany’s ceremonial head of state.

Schwan won 503 votes. Narrowly beaten by Koehler in 2004, she had hoped to siphon away enough conservative votes to win — or at least force a second and third round where her chances for an upset win were expected to rise.

SEEKING SECOND TERM

The victory of Koehler, 66, in the first round was expected to help Merkel ahead of the September vote, in which the 54-year-old chancellor is seeking a second four-year term.

Merkel tried to put Koehler’s re-election in perspective even though other conservative leaders saw it as the starting point for a reunion of the CDU and the FDP at federal level.

“Every election has its own special dynamic,” said Merkel, brushing off suggestions Koehler’s win was a harbinger of change. “The September election will have its own dynamic.”

However, Horst Seehofer, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian CSU sister party, said the election was an important first step.

“It’s a clear signal for what we’re planning — a government with the CDU/CSU and FDP,” Seehofer said.

SPD chairman Franz Muentefering told reporters: “This vote has no bearing on the parliamentary election.” He said the CDU and FDP had made similar boasts after they elected Koehler in 2004 but then failed to win a majority in the 2005 parliamentary vote.

Greens leader Renate Kuenast said the CDU and FDP had some way to go: “The September election is a wide open race.”

Merkel’s CDU/CSU leads the SPD in opinion polls for September’s election but is unsure of holding on to the chancellery because of complex coalition arithmetic.

If the conservatives and their preferred FDP partners fall short of a majority, as in 2005, the two most likely scenarios are another grand coalition or a coalition without Merkel made up of the SPD, the FDP and the Greens.

Koehler wasted no time getting back to work. He renewed his criticism of financial markets after a speech to the assembly in which he warned that the economic crisis was far from over.

“The monsters still haven’t been put in chains,” the former International Monetary Fund managing director told ARD TV. He also criticised banks for being stingy with lending now, and for failing to admit mistakes that led to the crisis.

“The sector needs to further examine its mistakes,” he said.

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