Page last updated at 01:20 GMT, Saturday, 19 June 2010 02:20 UK

Merkel struggling to hold her team together

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Berlin

Angela Merkel
Can the chancellor silence the din from her critics?

It occurred to me this week that the football World Cup is a little bit like the German government - you get a new one every four years.

True, there are no vuvuzelas in the Bundestag, no Mexican waves winging their way around the chancellery. It's also true that Angela Merkel lacks the charisma of a Kaka or the lightning reactions of a Ronaldo.

In fact, recently she's seemed to have more in common with that poor England goalkeeper Robert Green. Every ball that comes her way she fumbles and then watches, despairingly, as it creeps over the line and into her own net - to the delight of her opponents and the disbelief of her own team.

In Germany the chancellor's personal popularity is falling, support for her government has plummeted to an all-time low. In football parlance, Angela Merkel must be as sick as a parrot.

And yet just a few months ago Angela Merkel looked every bit a world champion. She was voted the most powerful woman on the planet for the third year in a row. Last autumn, not only was she re-elected chancellor, she managed to secure the centre-right coalition she'd been seeking: her Christian Democrats (the CDU and its Bavarian counterpart the CSU) joined forces with the business-friendly liberals (the FDP). It was the "dream team" that - they all confidently predicted - would lead Germany to success.

Rumpelstiltskin

Trouble is, the "dream team" has turned into something of a nightmare for Chancellor Merkel. The coalition parties haven't stopped squabbling since they came into office. About everything, from body scanners at airports to tax cuts. The arguments have been very loud and very public. And team captain Merkel has proved incapable of putting a lid on them.

Robert Green lets in goal
Maybe Angela Merkel knew how Robert Green felt

For example, the FDP recently accused the CSU of behaving like "wild pigs" by blocking health reforms. It also compared the German defence minister - who's from the CSU - to evil dwarf Rumpelstiltskin. The CSU dismissed the FDP as "a bunch of losers".

So much for the "dream team"! One German newspaper this week summed up the situation with a wonderful cartoon. It showed Chancellor Merkel grimacing, while being blasted at close range by three vuvuzelas - one for each coalition party.

The chancellor's inability to end all the bickering and the name-calling makes her look weak.

And already there have been political consequences. Last month her coalition lost a key regional election in western Germany. That deprived Chancellor Merkel of her majority in Germany's upper house of parliament. And that will make it harder for her government to push through key legislation.

The latest opinion polls show that most Germans have given up on her government entirely - expecting the "dream team" to fall apart, and an early election.

Moral compass

As if this wasn't bad enough for Chancellor Merkel, she's also had to deal with the Greek debt crisis and economic earthquakes in the eurozone.

That's proved to be an exceedingly difficult game to play. Initially she was reluctant to help bail out Greece and commit German funds to shoring up the common currency - and that hesitation cost her dearly. Across Europe the markets wobbled and Chancellor Merkel was criticised for putting domestic politics before European solidarity.

Joachim Gauck
Joachim Gauck is the opposition's candidate for president

When she eventually changed her mind and committed her country to multi-billion-euro bail-outs and rescue packages, it was the vuvuzelas back home that started blaring - the German public complaining about their country being the paymasters of Europe. You just can't win, can you?

So, is Team Merkel about to crumble and disappear from Germany's political playing field? Well, a lot may depend on what happens on 30 June. That's the day that Germany's next president will be elected. The previous president, Horst Koehler, resigned unexpectedly earlier this month.

The post is a largely ceremonial one, but in Germany the president is seen as the moral compass and it's an important position. Which is exactly why Chancellor Merkel will be keen for her candidate, from her party, to get elected. She's backing Christian Wulff, the state premier of Lower Saxony.

But the opposition has come up with a rival candidate who enjoys widespread public support - even the backing of some members of Chancellor Merkel's coalition. His name is Joachim Gauck. He's a Protestant pastor, a former human rights activist from East Germany who helped to expose the crimes of the East German secret police, the Stasi.

In Germany the president is elected not by public vote but by a federal assembly of more than 1,000 people - including MPs and delegates chosen by the 16 states. A victory for Mr Gauck would be a huge defeat for Chancellor Merkel - a blow to her government, her authority and her leadership. For a chancellor already under pressure, it could prove to be the final whistle…

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