- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

BERLIN | German President Horst Koehler won a second five-year term Saturday, a victory that gave a symbolic boost to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hopes of forming a center-right government after a national election this September.

Mr. Koehler, a former International Monetary Fund head and a member of Mrs. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, secured the required majority by a single vote in the first round of voting by a special parliamentary assembly.

That was enough to stop a challenge from center-left Social Democrat Gesine Schwan, who was bidding to become Germany’s first female president - a largely ceremonial job.

Mrs. Merkel said she was “very glad” about Mr. Koehler’s swift victory. “We think he is the president Germany needs in this situation,” she added.

The popular 66-year-old won 613 votes in the 1,224-member parliamentary assembly, made up of lower-house lawmakers and delegates nominated by state legislatures. Ms. Schwan, who had hoped to force further rounds of voting, won 503.

The presidency is supposed to be above the political fray and carries little real power, but Ms. Schwan’s challenge shook up the usually genteel election process and raised doubt over Mr. Koehler’s re-election.

The vote came before Mrs. Merkel and Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her foreign minister, face off in a Sept. 27 national election in which both hope to end their tense “grand coalition” of Germany’s biggest parties.

As opposition leader, Mrs. Merkel installed Mr. Koehler in 2004 with the help of the pro-business Free Democrats, her preferred future coalition partner. They backed Mr. Koehler’s re-election, along with a smaller center-right group.

Mrs. Merkel and the Free Democrats’ leader, Guido Westerwelle, appeared together to congratulate Mr. Koehler.

Senior conservative ally Horst Seehofer described the outcome as “a clear signal” for a center-right victory later this year. Still, Mrs. Merkel failed to secure such a victory in 2005, a year after Mr. Koehler was first elected.

Mr. Koehler often has positioned himself as an outsider to Germany’s political elite. He occasionally has refused to sign bills into law because of constitutional concerns, and recently warned politicians against using the crisis as a “backdrop for posturing.”

A Koehler defeat would have been embarrassing for Mrs. Merkel - but risky for the Social Democrats, with polls showing overwhelming public support for the incumbent.

Ms. Schwan, who already lost to Mr. Koehler in 2004, hoped to secure the opposition Left Party’s support and peel off center-right delegates in later rounds of voting by the sometimes unpredictable assembly.

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