BERLIN (Reuters) - Angela Merkel's lukewarm support for Jean-Claude Juncker as the next president of the European Commission has put the normally popular chancellor at the centre of a furious debate in Germany, where she is accused of ignoring the will of EU voters.
With one journalist going as far as to call Merkel's tactics "dumb" on national TV, she risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the European Parliament vote. She may also be in for a fight with her so-far compliant German coalition partners.
"Merkel's Ingratitude," was the headline on left-leaning Sueddeutsche Zeitung's editorial on Friday. Conservative tabloid Bild insisted: "Juncker must become president."
The European Commission chief is selected by EU leaders but must be approved by the assembly, where Eurosceptics from the right made gains in the election ending on Sunday. Politicians are taking note of the spread in anti-EU sentiment.
The European People's Party, the centre-right bloc including Merkel's conservatives, won the most seats in the vote and its lead candidate, Luxembourg's ex-premier Juncker, looked in line to succeed Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.
But Merkel emerged from talks with EU leaders two days later saying Juncker faced opposition - from Britain's David Cameron and others - and that the top EU jobs had to be decided in talks that would run until late June.
She had also voiced doubts before the vote as to whether Juncker or his centre-left rival Martin Schulz, the German leader of the outgoing European Parliament, should automatically be considered candidates to run the EU's executive body.
But her post-election talk of "respecting the treaty", which says heads of state and government must agree on a candidate by a qualified majority, has come up against accusations that she and other EU leaders are failing to respect the will of voters.
Merkel told a gathering of Catholics in southern Germany on Friday she was "carrying out all talks in the spirit that Jean-Claude Juncker should be president of the European Commission". But she once again cautioned that it was "not automatic".
Broadcaster ARD's Brussels correspondent Rolf-Dieter Krause had set the tone of the debate by warning viewers of "a fraud against you, the voters". The chancellor was playing a game, he said, that "is not just shameful: it is exceptionally dumb".
Politicians from the CDU and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners are warning against disillusioning the electorate. EU lawmaker Elmar Brok from the CDU said the assembly "will insist on the voters' will prevailing", and the CDU youth wing said "respect for voters requires the European leadership to accept and implement the clear election result".
The SPD's second-in-command, Yasmin Fahimi, accused Merkel of "hiding" behind Cameron's opposition to Juncker, whom he sees as an old-style EU federalist. The CDU and SPD also disagree on who should be the next German member of the European Commission.
Merkel, who speaks to the German parliament on Wednesday, is caught between a rock and a hard place. "Either she angers the party bloc by dropping Juncker or she angers some EU partners by pushing Juncker despite their misgivings," said an EU diplomat.
For philosopher Juergen Habermas, the moral imperative is clear. "If these talks really do propose someone other than the two lead candidates, it will strike at the heart of the European project," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "In future nobody can be expected to vote in European elections."
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Larry King