In the last two years, Germany has had three Federal Presidents. This is not a good track record for a national office which is supposed to incorporate the principles of continuity and stability. The president is the official head of state and although not much actual political power is invested in him, and he fulfills a largely representative role, it is important for the nation’s integrity to have a suitable person at the top of the political hierarchy. Germans were therefore dismayed when two presidents stepped down in quick succession, one of them amidst allegations of corruption, and it was felt that the office had suffered severe damage.
In politics, it is usually not possible to go back and start over, but this is exactly what Germany opted to do. At the presidential elections in 2010, the public’s favourite candidate, Joachim Gauck, lost by a very narrow margin. Since it is the Federal Assembly, not the voters, who elect the president, Gauck failed to secure a majority because he was running as the Social Democrats’ (SPD) candidate despite in fact having closer links to Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). The ruling coalition of CDU and Liberal Democrats (FDP) had appointed their own candidate, who finally managed to win when the ballot was repeated for the third time. Disappointment could be felt throughout the country, when Gauck was beaten, and it seems that the CDU are now determined to put right what they appeared to have messed up last time round.
Today, Gauck won with a very comfortable majority – partly due to the fact that this time he was the candidate for both CDU/FDP and SPD. The right wing radical NPD had decided to appoint their own candidate as had the left wing party Die Linke, who tried to get Beate Klarsfeld elected. Klarsfeld has dedicated most of her life to bringing Nazi perpetrators to justice, and she rose to national fame (or notoriety) in 1968 after slapping the then Federal Chancellor and previously long time member of the NSDAP, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, publicly across the face. She could well be regarded as a worthy, if somewhat marginal, opponent to Gauck. Today she did well and managed to secure some votes from outside Die Linke, but she was never any real competition for Gauck.
So who is this new president and what makes him so popular?
Joachim Gauck is a 72 year old retired vicar who was active in the East German civil rights movement, which helped end the Socialist dictatorship. After the Wall came down, Gauck headed the “Stasi-Behörde”, a government agency put in charge of sorting and organising the files left behind by the East German secret service and making them available to the people who had been spied on by a vast network of professional agents and “IMs” (unofficial informants). This position gave Gauck a high profile and meant that he was much better known to the public than several of his predecessors.
Gauck is the first east German to be elected president, and with him and Angela Merkel leading the country, it seems that Germany has now finally entered a stage which puts an end to the often disenfranchised position of the people living in what is still referred to as “the new states”.
Gauck’s personal history and his experience in the GDR undoubtedly inform his politics and he likes to conjure up the idea of freedom and its importance for human existence when addressing the public. Unlike his two predecessors, Gauck is a very gifted speaker and it is hoped that his charismatic presence will help to heal rifts within German society as much as make him a worthy representative for the country on the international stage.
Maybe these hopes are just a little bit too high, and Gauck will definitely need to prove himself over the next few months, but currently it seems that Germans could not be happier with their new president.
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