Merkel’s bloc expected to decide Monday whom to back for president

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Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives are set to decide Monday whether to back centre-left Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to become Germany’s next president or propose a rival candidate, a party source said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a press conference on September 19, 2016 in Berlin, one day after a regional election. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party was reeling after another stinging poll loss, as an upstart populist party poached votes in a Berlin state election by railing against her liberal refugee policy. / AFP PHOTO / John MACDOUGALL

The news came after the latest meeting Sunday between the Christian Democrats (CDU) head and her two partners in the ruling right-left grand coalition on filling the largely ceremonial post ended without breakthrough.

The three party leaders have wrangled for months over whom to nominate as a potential successor to President Joachim Gauck, a 76-year-old ex pastor from the former communist East Germany who is stepping down due to his advanced age.

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The new president — a figure who is meant to transcend party politics and serve as a moral standard bearer for the nation — will be elected on February 12 by parliament and delegates from Germany’s 16 federal states.

With German parties shifting into campaign mode ahead of September 2017 elections, the succession discussions have turned into a display of political power.

Merkel was blindsided last month by her vice chancellor and likely 2017 election rival, Sigmar Gabriel of the Social Democrats (SPD).

Gabriel publicly proclaimed the SPD would like to see its veteran Steinmeier, 60, often voted Germany’s most popular politician, to take the post.

This raised the pressure on the CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU to come up with an equally high-profile name, so far without success.

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German media have cited conservative heavyweights — including parliamentary president Norbert Lammert, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen — as possible contenders, but they have so far signalled they are not interested.

Gabriel on Sunday again insisted the SPD wants Steinmeier in the post and left the three-way meeting after less than an hour.

The CDU and CSU were now due to discuss in party committee telephone conferences Monday whether to go along with, or oppose, the demand, a conservative coalition source told AFP.

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If the CDU/CSU throw their weight behind Steinmeier, he would be virtually assured of taking the post, given the crushing majority the grand coalition has in the electoral assembly that choses the president.

If the conservatives chose their own candidate, this would set the scene for a bruising series of votes in which, by the third round, the winner would be decided by a simple majority.

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