Tue, Feb 21, 2012 - Page 6 News List

Merkel supports former activist as new president

AP, BERLIN

German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed late on Sunday to back former East German rights activist Joachim Gauck to become the country’s next president, resolving a political dispute that had become a damaging distraction.

The decision followed former German president Christian Wulff’s resignation from the post on Friday over a corruption probe and came after Merkel and her conservatives dropped their objections to the opposition’s candidate, 72-year-old Gauck.

Merkel, who like Gauck grew up in communist East Germany and is a Protestant, hailed the popular pastor as a “true teacher of democracy” who had helped the country come together since its reunification in 1990.

Gauck was the candidate of the opposition Social Democrats and Greens in June 2010 against Wulff, a former Christian Democrat state premier and Merkel’s hand-picked choice for the largely ceremonial office as a kind of moral arbiter for the nation.

Despite Merkel’s strong backing, Wulff was only elected in the third round of voting — a messy start to a doomed presidency.

The mainstream opposition put forward Gauck again following Wulff’s decision to step down. Only the far-left Die Linke, which includes several former East German communists, said it would withhold support when the president is elected next month.

Conservatives were initially reluctant to support Gauck as they feared losing face and offering a political gift to the opposition, but their desire to end a bruising chapter won out in the end.

Gauck’s victory is now assured with a clear majority of support in the assembly comprised of deputies and dignitaries that chooses the president, meaning two former East Germans will occupy the most important political offices in the country.

A visibly moved Gauck, who a majority of Germans say can restore credibility to the damaged office after Wulff’s series of scandals, said he was deeply honored to be nominated.

“It is a very special day for me, even in a life where I have had several,” he told reporters.

He said he was pleased that “someone like me, born during a terrible war and who lived 50 years under a dictatorship ... should be called upon today become head of state” and now wanted to help restore Germans’ “faith in their own strength” in the face of the eurozone crisis.

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