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Merkel Names Gauck as Unity Candidate for German Presidency

Germany's Chancellor Merkel, Former Activist Gauck
Joachim Gauck, former East German rights activist, and Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor. Photographer: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Chancellor Angela Merkel named Joachim Gauck, a pro-democracy activist from former East Germany, as the unity candidate for the ceremonial role of president after the incumbent quit amid corruption allegations.

Gauck, 72, a Protestant pastor and dissident who went on to oversee the opening up of Stasi secret-police files after the fall of the Berlin Wall, now goes forward to a special assembly for election by March 18, the second time he’ll face such a vote in less than two years after he was defeated for the presidency in 2010 by Merkel’s candidate, Christian Wulff. Wulff quit on Feb. 17 with a legal probe pending, setting the stage for Gauck to become the first president from the former communist east.

“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, Germany’s first eastern chancellor, told reporters in Berlin late yesterday alongside the main party leaders.

Merkel moved quickly to find a replacement after Wulff became the second German president to quit during her time in office, threatening to distract her from the euro-region debt crisis. By accepting Gauck, nominated in 2010 by the main opposition Social Democrats and the Green Party, she can assure the election of a candidate polls show to be popular with the public without losing focus on pulling Greece back from default.

‘Overcome and Confused’

Gauck, speaking at the same press conference in the chancellery with the three coalition party leaders as well as three from the opposition, said that he was “overcome and a little confused” after Merkel called him when he was in a taxi to tell him of their choice to put him forward for the office.

“I find it moving that somebody that was born in the darkness of war and grew up in a dictatorship for fifty years -- and did his work here after reunification -- that such a person can now be elevated to head of state,” Gauck said.

Germans should learn to “live in a land that they love” and his priority as president will be for people to “regain confidence,” Gauck said. All the same, he said, “don’t expect from me that I’m a superman or a man without mistakes.”

The son of a sailor who was sent to a Soviet Gulag for more than three years in the 1950s, Gauck was raised in the Baltic Sea port city of Rostock and became a Lutheran pastor. In 1989, he became a leading figure for the New Forum, an umbrella movement of groups opposing East Germany’s communist leadership.

‘Stasi Hunter’

After reunification, Gauck gained a reputation as Germany’s leading “Stasi hunter.” Through the 1990s, he oversaw the opening of millions of files kept by informants of the communist era Ministry of State Security, laying bare the extent of the East German surveillance state.

Gauck will now for the second time face the 1,240-member Federal Assembly of lawmakers and state delegates that elects the president. In June 2010, he unexpectedly forced a third round ballot, evidence of both his popularity and unease with Merkel’s selection of a former deputy leader of her party for the independent role of president.

Having lost ground after regional election defeats throughout 2011 that she and other party officials blamed on the debt crisis, the chancellor would have struggled to push through a candidate who didn’t enjoy broad support. Her majority in the assembly has since narrowed to as little as two seats from 21 seats at the last vote, according to electoral website

Left Party

While Merkel didn’t consult the Left Party on the presidency, leaving the third opposition group in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, to field its own candidate, the support of the SPD and Greens ensures Gauck’s election. The Left Party is the successor to former East Germany’s ruling communists.

Gauck has won praise from newspapers including Die Welt and news magazine Der Spiegel, while Merkel called him an “outstanding personality.”

Wulff’s decision to quit was “a huge setback for Merkel,” Gerd Langguth, a Merkel biographer and political scientist at the University of Bonn, said in a phone interview last week. Yet “if she picks a recognized personality she will survive this without damage.”

The resignation might even result in “a small positive” in Merkel’s crisis handling, Christian Schulz of Berenberg Bank in London said in a note. “The drive for a candidate supported by all major parties shows the current unity in German politics on major political questions,” Schulz said.

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