Less than 72 hours after Christian Wulff announced his resignation as German president, Germany has found a successor. On Sunday evening, Germany's main political parties announced that they had agreed on a common candidate, Joachim Gauck. The former East German civil rights activist is now expected to be elected in a vote that is likely to be a mere formality.
Gauck's nomination came after a dramatic conflict between Merkel's conservatives and their junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) had originally opposed Gauck's candidacy, favoring former German Environment Minister Klaus Töpfer or the former head of the Protestant Church in Germany, Wolfgang Huber, instead. The FDP leadership, however, announced on Sunday afternoon that it supported Gauck, the preferred candidate of the two main opposition parties, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. The split between the two partners threatened to turn into a serious crisis within the coalition. Merkel, however, prevented further escalation by giving in to the FDP.
The choice of Gauck represents something of a humiliating defeat for Merkel. Gauck was the opposition's candidate for president at the last election in 2010, which followed the unexpected resignation of then-president Horst Köhler. The Federal Assembly, the specially convened body which chooses the German president, only elected Merkel's hand-picked candidate, Christian Wulff, after three rounds of voting. At the time, observers saw the protracted vote as a slap in the face for Merkel. By supporting Gauck now, Merkel is arguably admitting that she made a mistake by backing Wulff in 2010.
But at the press conference on Sunday evening where the coalition parties together with the SPD and Greens presented Gauck as their common candidate, Merkel only had praise for the popular former civil-rights activist and pastor. She called Gauck a "true teacher of democracy," adding that she felt a connection to Gauck because of their common past in socialist East Germany. Merkel said that Gauck could provide "important ideas for the challenges of our time and the future," such as solving the debt crisis and promoting democracy.
Gauck, 72, admitted that he had been caught unprepared by the nomination and joked that he had not even had time to wash before the press conference. He said he was "a bit overwhelmed" by the decision, but said he wanted to convey to Germans the message "that they live in a good country, one that they can love." He said no one should expect him to be a "superman" or perfect. "I would first like to earn the accolades that I have been given in advance," he said.
'Respect and Dignity'
The other party leaders also had laudatory words for Gauck. SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel expressed the hope that Gauck could bridge the gulf between ordinary people and politicians, saying that Gauck was "not someone who gets involved in party squabbling." Green Party co-leader Claudia Roth described Gauck as a "moral authority" who would once again lend "respect and dignity" to the office of the president.
There is a widespread consensus in Germany that the scandal surrounding Christian Wulff has damaged the image of the German presidency. Wulff resigned from office on Friday after public prosecutors announced they would seek to have parliament lift his immunity so they could formally investigate allegations he accepted favors during his tenure as governor of the state of Lower Saxony.
The far-left Left Party sharply criticized the fact that Merkel had not invited them to take part in the search for a cross-party candidate. At a party conference in Brandenburg on Sunday, Left Party co-leader Gesine Lötzsch said that Merkel was sending a message to 5 million voters that they did not "belong." Merkel's conservatives generally take a skeptical stance toward the Left Party because of its links to the former East German communist party. On Sunday, the Left Party announced that it would not have supported Gauck as a candidate -- a position that is at least partly motivated by Gauck's past as an East German dissident.
The party's other co-leader, Klaus Ernst, criticized the choice of Gauck in remarks to the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. "It's difficult to talk of a consensus candidate when more than 5 million voters are excluded right from the beginning," he said.
'By No Means Amicable'
The conflict over the choice of Gauck is likely to have repercussions within Merkel's coalition. Sources in the conservatives told the AFP news agency on Sunday evening that resentment at the FDP would probably have effects on the coalition's cooperation in the future.
SPD politicians could scarcely contain their delight at the split within the government. "That was by no means amicable," said the SPD's general secretary, Andrea Nahles, on Sunday evening, describing the conservatives' concession to the FDP. "Amazingly enough, it wasn't the FDP that was toppled, but the chancellor."
The election of the new German president now has to take place by March 18 at the latest. The exact date has not yet been set. Given Gauck's cross-party support, his election is a formality.