The new German president used his acceptance speech to remind the Bundestag of the historic dimension of his election. But the parliament's speaker also alluded to the scandal that ushered in Joachim Gauck's tenure.
Presidential candidate Joachim Gauck sat in the front row of the visitor's gallery, flanked by his partner Daniela Schadt on his left and Andreas Voßkuhle, president of Germany's constitutional court on his right. Together they watched the election unfold in the crowded chamber of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. All of two hours later, 991 delegates elected him as Christian Wulff's successor.
Gauck is now Germany's premier statesman, and the expectations are "huge," said Parliamentary President Norbert Lammert in his opening speech. Lammert, a member of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has a reputation for thoughtful, polished formulations, and his words carry weight. It's no accident that he commands cross-party respect. And he struck the right tone on Sunday, March 18, too.
It was clear to everyone that Lammert would mention the scandal that ended Wulff's presidency prematurely. "A fair assessment of the circumstances of the resignation, and the causes that led to them, will only be possible once an appropriate distance to them has been gained," he said.
The meaning of the word 'fair'
The emphasis was on that little word "fair." The circumstances and the reasons surrounding the Wulff affair are, by and large, well-known. Wulff resigned in February after only 20 months in office after he was accused of accepting favors during his term as state premier of Lower Saxony. Which allegations are true and which false are now primarily a matter for the courts. Investigations are underway into allegedly illegitimate discounts on loans or holidays with crony businessmen.
Lammert wisely avoided going into the details, confining himself to thoughtful observations. He pointed out that the core issue was the relationship between office and the person occupying it, and about what is expected of people in power. And this last point was as much a warning to Gauck as it was a reappraisal of ex-president Wulff.
It was not only a warning to him personally, but also a suggestion to the public, and particularly the media, about how he should be treated. He said there were plenty of people who had reasons to be self-critical. "Some things were bitter, but unavoidable," he said. "Other things were neither necessary nor appropriate, but rather undignified." Both delegates and visitors in the chamber applauded.
The opponent in the room
After this unusually long, but important speech, Lammert opened the first round of voting. Standing against Gauck was the socialist Left party's candidate Beate Klarsfeld, who sat among the delegates between the Left's chairman Klaus Ernst and its parliamentary leader Gregor Gysi.
Born in Berlin of German and French heritage, Klarsfeld had, over several decades, gained a reputation as a "Nazi-hunter." She was able to record some success on Sunday - winning 126 votes, she gained three more than the Left party had in the assembly. Historian Olaf Rose, candidate of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), had to make do with three votes.
As expected, the overwhelming majority elected Joachim Gauck as Germany's 11th president. The joint candidate of the conservative CDU, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) gained 991 votes. If all the delegates of all these parties had voted for him, the figure would have reached around 1,100, and his victory would have seemed significantly more emphatic.
But neither the supporting parties, nor the new head of state himself, expected such unanimity. Many in the ranks of the SPD and the Greens are troubled by Gauck's views on social, financial, and peace policy. In these areas, the 72 year old is notably closer to the government than to the opposition. This is more than enough explanation for the 108 abstentions.
'What a nice Sunday'
Gauck describes himself as a "left-wing, liberal conservative," a declaration he made at the time of his first candidacy for presidency in 2010. That was when he lost to Wulff, nominated by the CDU and the FDP, in a third and final round of voting.
That he should be the chosen candidate for all the parties - with the exception of the Left party - made his election exceptional. Never has the outcome of a vote for the presidency been more predictable than this time around - which is why many were eagerly awaiting Gauck's first, brief speech immediately after the vote. "What a nice Sunday," he began, earning sympathetic laughter and smiles from the assembly.
He continued that the weather couldn't have been any better on this bright spring day in Berlin as the sun broke through the glass dome of the German parliament building. For Gauck, this day, March 18, holds a special symbolic value. On the very same date 22 years ago, he was able to vote in free elections for the very first time - in the first free vote held in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Back then, he recalled, he vowed never to miss a chance to vote in the future. Back then, voter turnout stood at a record 93 percent. Today, politicians are happy when even two-thirds of German voters make it to the polls.
The 'people's president'
Gauck stressed that he wants to use his term to fight the people's growing apathy and indifference to politics and government. He wants to be seen as the "people's president," winning citizens back into the fold of political participation. This had been his mission since 2000, he said, when he left his post as federal commissioner for the archives of the former East German secret police, the Stasi.
Gauck said he aims to stay true to himself, adding that he was aware he would not be able to live up to all the high expectations that people have of him. He said he would have to engage with new issues, problems and people. It is this part of his speech that will be important to his critics, who warn that his focus on freedom and his experiences in Communist East Germany will make him too one-dimensional of a president. Angela Merkel is among these critics. The chancellor has long refused to back him, neither in the 2010 vote, nor this time around. It was the pressure of her junior coalition partners that forced her to accept Gauck's nomination.
Both of the presidents to have stepped down early over the last two years - Christian Wulff and his predecessor Horst Köhler - were Merkel's explicit selections, meaning she had no luck in picking the right man or woman for the post a third time around. She's likely hoping against hope that this day may prove to be - to use Gauck's own words - "a nice Sunday" for herself, too.
Author: Marcel Fürstenau / bk/ai
Editor: Darren Mara