Federal Assembly in Berlin to elect next German president | News | DW | 18.03.2012
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Federal Assembly in Berlin to elect next German president

In Berlin the Federal Assembly, comprising more than 1200 electors, is chosing Germany's third president in two years. Joachim Gauck, a theologian and former East German rights campaigner, has broad five-party backing.

The Federal Assembly, which comprises 620 members of the Bundestag parliament and 620 delegates representing Germany's 16 regional states, is chosing between Gauck and Beate Klarsfeld, an anti-Nazi activist nominated by the small Left Party.

The pick for Germany's mainly ceremonial post will replace Christian Wulff, a former Hanover-based state premier, who resigned last month in a scandal over financial favors after spending 20 months in office.

In 2010, Gauck lost a previous presidential contest to Wulff, who was then Chancellor Angela Merkel's handpicked candidate. For Sunday's election, Merkel bowed to pressure from the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens and her own coalition conservatives to plump for Gauck.

"We expect a big majority (for Gauck)," said SPD leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier. This would "quickly restore dignity to the office," said Steinmeier, adding that he expected Gauck to exhibit independence.

Call for restoration of trust

In his opening address in the Reichtag Building's main chamber on Sunday, parliamentary speaker Norbert Lammert urged Germany to strive for a return to the five-year presidential term prescribed in Germany's constitution. He was referring to the previous short stays of Christian Wulff, and before him, Horst Köhler.

"No-one would regard the increasingly short (presidential) terms of recent times as an achievement," said Lammert, who added that exercising public office without trust was impossible.

Assembly members then went on to formally register their presence and then to vote. Electors sent by Germany's regional states include prominent persons from the spheres of sport, culture, entertainment, science and religion.

80 percent for Gauck, say surveys

Beate Klarsfeld gesturing with index finger

Candidate Joachim Gauck with partner Daniela Schadt

Recent surveys showed that up to 80 percent of Germans favor Gauck. A poll by Infratest also found that two thirds thought Gauck would be an "uncomfortable" president for Germany's established political parties.

The 72-year-old, who was born in Rostock in former communist East Germany, has no party affiliations, but a reputation for speaking his mind on freedoms. His father spent four years in a Siberian gulag.

Gauck studied theology, became a Lutheran pastor, and emerged in the tense years before the fall of the Berlin Wall as spokesman for "New Forum," a network which demanded democratic reforms.

From 1990 until 2000 - in the initial phase of German reunification - Gauck headed the agency that opened the archives of the dreaded Stasi, the former East German secret police, and made its misdeeds public. He once described himself as a "conservative from the liberal left."

Slap in the face recalled

Berlin-born Klarsfeld, aged 73, made headlines in 1968 when she slapped the then-chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi party member, in the face during a party political conference.

Candidate Joachim Gauck with partner Daniela Schadt in close-up before vote. In the background, eagle symbol of Bundestag chamber

Left Party nominee Beate Klarsfeld

She and her husband, Frenchman Serge Klarsfeld, whose Jewish father perished at Nazi hands, spent much of their lives tracking down former Nazis, including Klaus Barbie, known as the "Butcher of Lyon."

Last month, when nominated by the Left, she said her motivation was always to fight to improve what she called "the devastating image of Germans abroad."

Special purpose assembly

The Federal Assembly, Germany's largest parliamentary gathering, has had the expressed purpose of electing post-war Germany's president over the past 60 years. The post is largely seen as providing a moral compass for the nation.

On Sunday, at an ecumenical service in Berlin ahead of the election, the Roman Catholic church's political intermediary in Germany, Prelate Karl Jüsten, said ex-president Wulff deserved thanks. Calls for more transparency, said Jüsten, tended to dissuade many potential leaders from seeking public office. He also cautioned against having too many expectations of the future president.

Once chosen, the president-elect is to be sworn in before the Bundestag and the upper house, the Bundesrat, on Friday.

ipj/tj (Reuters, dpa, AP, epd, Reuters)