Germany has elected a new president. Joachim Gauck, a former pastor and East German rights campaigner, drew backing from across the political spectrum.
The Federal Assembly, which is made up of the 620 members of the Bundestag and 620 delegates representing Germany's 16 states, chose Gauck over Beate Klarsfeld, an anti-Nazi activist nominated by the small Left party, and far-right candidate Olaf Rose.
Gauck received 991 votes, Klarsfeld got 126 and Rose received three out of 1,228 valid votes, while 108 delegates abstained.
Gauck accepted the result, saying, "What a beautiful Sunday."
He used his first speech as president to recall the first time he was able to vote in a free election: 22 years ago in communist East Germany, at the age of 50. Months later, East and West Germany became one country.
Gauck stressed the importance of freedom and of responsibility, adding that he would surely not be able to fulfill all the expectations of him.
"But I can promise one thing," he said. "That with all of my power and all of my heart I say 'yes' to the responsibility you have entrusted in me today."
That is a welcome sentiment in a country that has seen two presidents come and abruptly go in less than eight years.
Gauck will be replacing Christian Wulff, a former state premier, who resigned last month in a scandal over financial favors after only 20 months as president. His predecessor, Horst Köhler, quit at the beginning of his second five-year term over criticism of comments he made about Germany military missions abroad.
An 'uncomfortable president'
Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was pleased that Gauck had received a broad majority of votes. She stressed that the president-elect is someone who is aware of Germans' concerns at the same time as he respects politicians.
The fact that two people from East Germany now hold the state's top jobs was a sign that Germany unity had been achieved, she said.
"He has already fulfilled all the hopes we have in him with his first speech," commented Philipp Rösler, head of the FDP, the junior partner in Merkel's ruling coalition.
"He won't be someone who makes democracy seem boring," said Green party chief Cem Özdemir.
Recent surveys show that up to 80 percent of Germans favor Gauck as president. A poll by Infratest also found that two-thirds thought he would be an "uncomfortable" president for Germany's established political parties.
The 72-year-old, who was born in Rostock in eastern Germany, has no party affiliations, but a reputation for speaking his mind. 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 East German secret police, and made its misdeeds public. He once described himself as a "conservative from the liberal left."
Gauck is to be sworn in before the Bundestag and the upper house, the Bundesrat, on Friday.
ipj, ncy/ng (dpa, AFP, Reuters, epd)