In a blow to chancellor Angela Merkel, a pastor who defied East Germany's bosses may be elected president instead of her candidate. But he says he has no wish to see her ousted as a result
The Observer, Sunday 20 June 2010
He is the colourful pensioner at the heart of the most important presidential election in postwar German history. But Joachim Gauck insists that he never expected his race for high office to cause such a stir.
A Protestant pastor and anti-communist civil rights activist from east Germany, Gauck could be elected German president in 10 days' time in a vote that is widely being seen as an unofficial poll on Chancellor Angela Merkel's leadership. The silver-haired 70-year-old is being backed by the opposition Social Democrats and Greens, who believe that a defeat for Merkel's candidate, Christian Wulff, could lead swiftly to her own political demise.
At a time when the German government finds itself in a state of turmoil, riddled by rows over its handling of the debt crisis and the controversial bailout of the Greek economy, Gauck appears a little nonplussed to find himself the man of the moment. "I was surprised and flattered to be asked to run for the post," Gauck said. "But I didn't seek it, and it definitely wasn't my intention to unseat Merkel, and I'm sure she doesn't see it like that either – I just want to do what's best for the country."
The unexpected election is taking place following the shock resignation of President Horst Köhler this month. "We are at a crossroads in Germany," Gauck said. "There's a deep-seated sense of anxiety right now, and we need a new impetus. I notice that people aren't just interested in consumption and football, they also want to be able to believe in people and institutions again."
Many see Gauck as something of a moral authority who can bring fresh blood to German public life. Momentum is growing for the former dissident who, particularly as someone who stands outside party politics, is seen as a much more attractive figure than Wulff, a clean-cut, tanned, media-savvy career politician who is 20 years the priest's junior.
While the government factions – Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Free Democrats (FDP) – hold a potential majority of at least 21 in the 1,244-seat special federal assembly that will choose the president, it is far from clear that the chancellor's candidate will win. Several members of the government faction, including members of the FDP, who have clashed repeatedly with Merkel since entering a coalition with her in October, have said they will vote for Gauck.
"He is a figure who is closely associated with the peaceful revolution in the GDR [East Germany] in 1989," said Holger Zastrow, head of the FDP in Saxony, in the former East. "He fought courageously and fearlessly for his convictions … he speaks from the soul and what he's done for this country, it's not something we can easily forget."
With his fascinating Cold War history, Gauck, a father of four who was born in the port city of Rostock, is undoubtedly one of the most interesting Germans alive. He says his political conscience was initially awakened by the arrest, when he was 11, of his sea-captain father on suspicion of espionage. He was taken from the family dinner table to a gulag in Siberia and the Gaucks did not see him for almost five years.
"The fate of our father was like an educational cudgel," Gauck said. "It led to a sense of unconditional loyalty towards the family which excluded any sort of idea of fraternisation with the system."
Banned by the regime from studying German and history because of his political opposition, he was forced to study theology and later trained to become a pastor. He led huge peaceful opposition marches in 1989, which partly led to the fall of the regime. His sermons from that time are famous.
Following reunification, Gauck was in charge of the state-run archives on the Stasi secret police, and won both recognition and enemies for exposing their crimes and espionage techniques.
He describes himself as a "leftwing liberal conservative," but did not vote for the first time until he was 50, having spent most of his life living under the GDR dictatorship. The experience, he said, had made him passionate about democracy. What makes his candidacy particularly awkward for Merkel is that the two are friends who have always shown deep respect for each other.
The chancellor even read the tribute at his 70th birthday, praising him as an "outstanding personality". Having both grown up in East Germany, Gauck and Merkel – herself a priest's daughter – have had similar life experiences.
Of Merkel, Gauck only has words of praise: "She's powerful, innovative, imaginative, and unlike many in this country she doesn't immediately take the position that everything is doom and gloom. She's an optimist," he said.
Yet it is the 70-year-old pastor who could yet bring her down. Some commentators have described it as a "Shakespearean scenario".Connolly, K. (2010) Joachim Gauck: the dissident hero who holds the destiny of Germany in his hands. [Online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jun/20/joachim-gauck-angela-merkel-president [20/06/2010]