Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and human rights activist from communist East Germany, is elected as the new German president, posing a potential political headache for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
BERLIN, GERMANY (MARCH 18, 2012) (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 (March 18), 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.
"I am happy to have been so widely nominated. I have the feeling that many people in the country wished that the federal assembly would vote in this way," Gauck told journalists after the election.
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.
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 (FDP), joined opposition parties last month in backing him to replace the disgraced Wulff.
"It's not just about restoring the trust in the role of the president but also in democracy and the institutions. This happened already in his first short speech. We are looking forward to the many more speeches he will make," FDP head, Philipp Roesler told journalists.
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.
"He won't be a president of a government majority. He is not the forerunner of anything. He's not a red, black, green or yellow president but rather he'll be the president of all the people in this country," Green party leader Claudia Roth said, thoughts mirrored by the head of the Social Democrats.
"He will be a vocal and clever president but also an independent president and that's why we nominated and elected him," party leader Sigmar Gabriel said.
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.
"(I want him to be) a president for everyone and that he receives wide support from all groups in society. I hope this will be the case, and also that he will be a president of the people," Heinrich Schaefer from Heidelberg told Reuters TV.
"I think Gauck is a sovereign person, who has his own opinion which he hopefully won't be scared to represent," said Cornelia Grosse.
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.
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 favour 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.
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