Merkel picks Joachim Gauck as new German president


The awkward couple. Former East German rights activist Joachim Gauck, the likely new president, and German chancellor Angela Merkel.



BERLIN — In her usual pragmatic manner Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday night praised the man who will almost certainly be the next German president, even though she vehemently opposed his candidacy for the same post in 2010.

Joachim Gauck, a former East German activist and pastor who helped expose the crimes of the Stasi secret police, secured the backing of all the main parties as presidential candidate, less than two years after being narrowly defeated by Merkel’s nominee Christian Wulff.

“The central issue in the public life of Joachim Gauck has been that of freedom and responsibility, and that’s what connects me to him personally, despite our differences,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin on Sunday, announcing that she and the other main party leaders had agreed on his candidacy.

Read more: German president's resignation a blow to Merkel

Wulff’s resignation over corruption allegations last Friday prompted a frantic search for a replacement. This time Merkel wanted the main parties to agree on a consensus candidate rather than see a re-run of the 2010 election, when Wulff took three rounds to beat the popular Gauck, who was the opposition’s candidate.

Merkel’s coalition only has a wafer-thin majority in the Federal Assembly, a body representing the parliament and the 16 states, which has to elect a new president by March 18, and she wants to avoid a bitter election campaign while she is trying to deal with the euro crisis.

Over the weekend, a number of other candidates were considered but in the end her junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, or FDP, insisted that they would block any other candidate but Gauck, reportedly much to the fury of many in Merkel’s Christian Democrats party, the CDU.

The presidency is a largely ceremonial role, but carries great moral authority. It's been rocked by two resignations in as many years. First Horst Koehler, a former IMF director, stepped down suddenly in 2010 after making remarks about German military deployments having economic objectives. Wulff then departed on Friday following over two months of scandal involving his close ties with a number of business people.

Read more: Wulff's scandal deepens

The hope is that Gauck will manage to bring back some gravitas to the office. And he certainly seems more in the mould of former heavyweight figures like Roman Herzog and Richard von Weizsaecker than the lightweight Wulff.

In fact Gauck’s message has consistently been one of promoting democracy and freedom, although the 72-year-old is thought to be quite conservative on a number of social issues. “It moves me that a man who was born in a gloomy, frightening war and grew up under dictatorship for 50 years is now being asked to be head of state,” Gauck told reporters on Sunday, sitting alongside Merkel and the main party leaders.

He was born in 1940, grew up in the coastal city of Rostock and was opposed the Communist system from an early age. One of the most decisive episodes in his young life was when his father was arrested by Soviets in 1951 and sent to a Gulag for more than three years.

Guack, who saw his dreams of becoming a journalist thwarted, became a Lutheran pastor and subsequently a dissident. He led the anti-government protests in Rostock in 1989, which were part of the huge popular movement that lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in the newly reunited Germany, he was put in charge of the Stasi archives and played an important role in exposing the extent of the East German surveillance state.

While his East German past and religious background give him much in common with Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, they aren't believed to have a warm relationship. And his oratorical flourishes, charisma and outspokenness contrast with Merkel careful approach and uninspiring rhetorical style.

Yet, despite the fact that a Gauck presidency could be regarded as something of a humiliation for Merkel, showing that she was wrong to back Wulff in 2010, it doesn’t have to be a disaster for her.

For one thing, if Gauck turns out to be a poor president, Merkel can claim he wasn’t her choice. And furthermore her acquiescence to his nomination made her seem almost magnanimous in accepting her previous mistake and ready to search for consensus rather than pushing party advantage, unlike the FDP. Of course the fact that she is riding high in the polls and that Wulff’s woes haven’t dented her own popularity, may have made that decision easier to bear.

And it could make it all the easier for the chancellor to rid herself of the FDP party and look for alternative partners after next year’s federal election.

In fact it may turn out that the FDP overplayed its hand in forcing through Gauck’s nomination. The CDU are reported to be furious with the junior party. The spat even threatened to bring about the collapse of the coalition, Bild newspaper reports.

Michael Kretschmer, a CDU lawmaker, spoke of a "massive breach of trust" by the FDP that would have serious consequences in the future.

The FDP saw an opportunity to flex its muscles after feeling sidelined on many issues in the coalition government. In particular it has failed to push through the tax cuts that had formed the most important plank of its election campaign in 2009. Despite ditching the former leader Guido Westerwelle for the young Philipp Roesler, the party continued to fare badly in a string of regional elections last year. They are now only polling at around 2 or 3 percent.

Merkel will probably need to look for a new coalition partner next year in ether the Greens or the Social Democrats if she wants to secure a third term. And finally accepting those parties’ original choice for president may even help smooth the way for a new coalition, one that does not include the irritating FDP.