Germany to elect outspoken rights activist as president
BERLIN - Agence France-Presse
German presidential candidate Joachim Gauck arrives for an oecumenical service at the Franzoesische Friedrichstadtkirche Church in Berlin on March 18, 2012. AFP PhotoFormer East German rights activist Joachim Gauck is set to become Germany's next president today, with hopes high he will restore dignity to the office in the wake of two scandal-tainted predecessors.
Gauck, 72, enjoys the support of all of Germany's mainstream political parties, assuring his election by a special assembly that will gather at the glass-domed Reichstag parliament building in central Berlin at 1100 GMT.
The result should be announced by 1300 GMT, followed by a short speech by the new head of state.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fellow east German, threw her support behind the plain-spoken Lutheran pastor in February after President Christian Wulff resigned amid a flurry of corruption allegations dating from before he took office.
Wulff only served 20 months of his five-year term in office.
He had replaced Horst Koehler, a former head of the International Monetary Fund who stepped down after an uproar over comments he made appearing to justify using the military to serve Germany's economic interests.
Claudia Roth, co-leader of the opposition Greens party, which also backs Gauck's candidacy, said the country was looking to Gauck to "give this badly damaged office dignity and respect again".
A poll for ARD public television released Saturday indicated that 80 percent of respondents consider him to be trustworthy.
Gauck helped drive the peaceful revolution that brought down communist East Germany and later fought to ensure that the public would be granted access to vast stash of files left behind by the despised Stasi secret police after reunification in 1990. He oversaw the archive for the next decade.
The media and the public have cheered his candidacy as an opportunity to remove some of the tarnish from the largely ceremonial office which serves as a kind of moral compass for the nation.
Only the far-left Die Linke party, which has its roots among former East German communists, has withheld its support and nominated the prominent Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld instead as a protest candidate.
Expectations are outsized for Gauck, who has won a reputation across the country as an inspiring public speaker, albeit with a touch of vanity.
But as a staunch Protestant like Merkel, he is also keen to remind Germans that their hard-won freedoms carry weighty responsibilities with them -- a lifelong theme he has said he will take to the presidential palace.
"From Gauck we can learn that democracy means thinking and acting for one's self rather than waiting for political redeemers," the influential news weekly Die Zeit said in its current issue.
Gauck himself has warned scandal-weary Germans against seeing him as a redeemer, telling reporters the night he was nominated that they should not expect "Superman".
He said he would seek to relieve Germans of some of their angst as Europe grapples with its sovereign debt crisis and to reach out to immigrant groups to foster integration.
Gauck looked set to buck tradition from the start, as his longtime girlfriend Daniela Schadt said he had no plans to divorce his estranged wife of more than 50 years Gerhild and wed her.
"I see no reason to marry for reasons of protocol," the 52-year-old journalist set to become Germany's next First Lady told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
"Considering the fact that not only Jochen and I but the whole family accepts our arrangement, I think the rest of society can live with it," she said, using Gauck's nickname.