BERLIN (Reuters) – Germans resoundingly elected Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and human rights activist from communist East Germany, as president of the European Union’s largest country on Sunday, posing a potential political headache for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Gauck, 72, won 991 votes in the federal assembly comprising national and regional lawmakers that is charged with electing the president, a largely ceremonial office in Germany. His main rival, anti-Nazi campaigner Beate Klarsfeld, garnered 126 votes.
Germans hope Gauck, a prominent player in the peaceful protests that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, can restore dignity to the presidency, tarnished by financial scandals that felled his predecessor Christian Wulff.
“I can promise one thing, that I will say yes with all my strength and heart to the responsibility you have delegated to me today,” Gauck told lawmakers after taking the oath of office.
His victory was never in doubt after all the main political parties, including Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats, threw their weight behind his candidacy.
However, the feisty theologian may prove an uncomfortable partner for Merkel, even if as a mainly symbolic head of state he poses no threat to her domination of German politics.
Merkel only reluctantly accepted Gauck for the top job after her liberal coalition ally, the Free Democrats, joined opposition parties last month in backing him to replace the disgraced Wulff.
“The new president will polarize the republic with his views about freedom,” the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel said in an article that sketched out the former East German clergyman’s deep attachment to the cause of individual liberty.
“Unlike his predecessor, Gauck does not intend to kowtow to political conventions. He will thereby inevitably become an antagonist of the chancellor,” said Spiegel.
Unlike Wulff, a former CDU lawmaker, Gauck has no party affiliation. But he is known for speaking his mind – with the eloquence of a seasoned preacher – on controversial issues.
POPULAR TRUST IN GAUCK
Eighty percent of Germans trust Gauck, according to an opinion poll by Infratest published on Saturday, yet two thirds said they thought he would be an “uncomfortable” president for the country’s political parties.
The German head of state has little executive power but is supposed to provide moral leadership, a role for which Gauck, a prominent figure in the peaceful protest movement that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, seems well-suited.
“The president of the federal republic must be the guardian of the soul of our nation,” said Sunday’s edition of the top-selling daily Bild which also backed Gauck for the job in 2010.
“Gauck’s most important task is to restore dignity to this considerably tarnished office.”
Merkel and Gauck both hail from old East Germany where her father was also a clergyman. They are said to have a good personal rapport, but she blocked a bid to install him as president in 2010 in favor of the ill-fated Wulff.
Gauck has a rich life story shaped by the Cold War. When he was 11 his father was sent to the Siberian Gulag for alleged espionage and did not return for four years.
That experience fostered an abiding aversion to totalitarianism, and he has said freedom will be the leitmotif of his presidency.
After the fall of Communism and Germany’s reunification, Gauck oversaw the archives of the dreaded Stasi, the East German secret police, earning recognition for exposing their crimes.
Gauck’s clear-cut victory on Sunday stood in contrast to the 2010 election, when Wulff — doggedly backed by Merkel against strong opposition from other parties — only won in a third round of voting in the federal assembly.
The speaker of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, Norbert Lammert, said he hoped Gauck would serve out his full five-year term, bringing stability back to an institution shaken not only by Wulff’s premature resignation but also by the sudden departure of his predecessor, Horst Koehler.
Koehler quit in 2010, early into his second five-year term as president, after making comments about Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan deemed inappropriate.
(Additional reporting by Hans-Edzard Busemann; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mark Heinrich)