Former East German human rights activist Joachim Gauck is set to become Germany’s new president
Germany’s government and the two major opposition parties say they will jointly nominate former East German human rights activist Joachim Gauck to be the country’s next president.
The decision comes after Christian Wulff, 52, quit as president on Friday following two months of allegations he received favours such as a favourable loan, and hotel stays from friends when he was state governor of Lower Saxony. He was Merkel’s candidate when elected less than two years ago, triumphing at that time over Gauck in a messy election.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday her centre-right coalition government and the centre-left opposition rallied behind Gauck, 72, who was initially proposed by the opposition Social Democrats and Greens. He is not a member of a political party.
Advertisement: Story continues below
“What moves me the most is that a man who was still born during the gloomy, dark war, who grew up and lived 50 years in a dictatorship … is now called to become the head of state,” Gauck said. “This is of course a very special day in my life.”
Opposition leader Sigmar Gabriel took a swipe at Merkel at their joint news conference at Berlin’s chancellery, saying, “It is now evident that all involved regret that Joachim Gauck failed to get elected (in 2010), therefore it is good that we now have him as joint candidate.”
When Wulff resigned, Merkel immediately said she would work with the Social Democrats and Greens to find a consensus candidate to succeed him.
Merkel who, like Gauck, grew up in then-communist East Germany or the GDR, said their life stories strongly connect them. “We have both spent a part of our life in the GDR and our dream of freedom has become true in 1989.”
The chancellor stressed that clergymen such as Gauck – a former Lutheran priest – were at the forefront of the protests that eventually brought down the Communist regime.
Greens’ leader Claudia Roth said: “Joachim Gauck is someone who is able to restore radiance to democracy.” She added that “Gauck will restore the respect for the office, will restore dignity” after the presidency became tainted by Wulff’s scandal.
While his name widely circulated as the opposition’s favourite, it wasn’t clear until late Sunday whether the governing coalition would rally behind the candidate.
“I’m coming right out of a plane, I was in a taxi when the chancellor called me. I haven’t even washed,” he said at the news conference.
He added he was still stunned by the nomination, unable to voice great joy, but “very late tonight, I will also be happy”.
Merkel’s coalition seemed shaken by the search for a new candidate as the junior partner, the Liberals, broke the government’s ranks earlier on Sunday by announcing that they would endorse the opposition’s Gauck.
“It appears to have been the case that the governing coalition almost broke up over the issue and that Miss Merkel therefore changed course,” the Social Democrat’s Gabriel told public broadcaster Phoenix. “But whatever, I believe it is a good decision.”
Germany’s head of state holds a largely ceremonial role. The incumbent typically uses his moral authority, standing above party politics, to influence debates in society and politics.
The new president will be elected by a special assembly next month, but with cross-party backing, the process should be a formality.
In the meantime, the speaker of parliament’s upper house, conservative Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, has taken over the presidential duties on an interim basis, mostly signing legislation into law.