Opinion: German president keeps country on its toes | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.09.2014
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Opinion: German president keeps country on its toes

We're halfway through Joachim Gauck's tenure as German president. Does he get involved in day-to-day politics too much? Or does he say exactly the right things at the right time? DW's Ralf Bosen has no doubt.

When Joachim Gauck took office two and a half years ago, much was expected of him. The former pastor and civil rights campaigner had a reputation for being a powerful speaker with a sense of purpose who would voice uncomfortable truths. He was someone who could win people over with charm and empathy, but wouldn't duck a dispute with powerful people if he needed to. That happened when, as head of the authority in charge of administering former Stasi documents, Gauck crossed swords with former Chancellor Helmut Kohl when he opposed opening the East German files.

But at the start of his tenure, there was little evidence of this version of Gauck. Of course, he could deliver clever, politically correct speeches, but they sounded diluted and weak, and did not move Germans. Instead of showing his edge, this was Gauck-light. Some Germans wondered whether the president may have been the third head of state in a row who would turn out to be the wrong man for the job. Hadn't the reputation of the presidential office itself been damaged by the resignations of Horst Köhler and particularly Christian Wulff? The former went too early, the latter too late.

Gauck Rede bei der Gedenkfeier zum 75. Jahrestag des Beginns des Zweiten Weltkriegs

Gauck speaking at the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two

But with half his term gone, the 74-year-old Gauck has long since emerged from the shadows of his predecessors. In Gauck, Germany has a self-confident president who performs his duties energetically. Gauck has learned to skillfully insert himself into the major political debates, without ever sliding into the indignity of day-to-day politics. That does Germany good. The president finds clear words where the chancellor keeps quiet or lurks in ambiguities. That suits both of them. Instead of the feared conflict between the two leaders, we get the opposite: an almost perfect complementary partnership. On the one hand, the pragmatic Angela Merkel who approaches problems with a scientist's exactitude and calm - on the other, Joachim Gauck, who seeks direct dialogue and plays masterfully on the keyboard of emotions.

Criticizing Russia and Turkey

Gauck's form improved significantly after he found the central themes of his presidency: Germany's role in the world and the great conflicts of our time. And so he criticized Russia and, referring to the Ukraine conflict, he said, "territorial concessions often only broaden the appetite of aggressors." The supporters of the far-right NPD he called "idiots," while the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan he termed a "danger to democracy."

At the Munich Security Conference, he said rightly that Germany should - commensurate with its economic power - start intervening earlier and more decisively in international crises and, if necessary, by military means - something that divided the public. The issue dominated headlines for days, and proved at last that Gauck is more than just a feel-good president fulfilling a symbolic role.

Deutsche Welle Ralf Bosen

DW's Ralf Bosen

The fact that these statements spark such important debates is more than welcome. Thank Gauck! The president is someone who shakes things up, something that Germany desperately needs being governed by a grand coalition. Otherwise the country could be becalmed by the all-encompassing consensus politics of the major parties and Merkel's habitual delaying tactics. The Germans can thank a head of state who regularly rates as a close second to the chancellor in popularity ratings.

Defender of freedom

Just as Gauck's success consolidates his position, his early reluctance now seems more like a prudent sounding-out of the political and social terrain. Not everything has gone well. One would have liked to see Gauck criticize the US over the NSA affair. One might have expected that much from a former citizen of the GDR who had made freedom such a big issue. Instead he said virtually nothing.

But that doesn't spoil the picture as a whole. Gauck is on the way to becoming a very good president. Perhaps even a great one. To make a mark like that on German history he will need a suitable stage - antagonists against whom he can grow, conflicts in which he can prove himself. Gauck has the potential and the time to do that. And anyone who watches just one news broadcast in these crisis-stricken times can see quickly enough - there is a suitable stage standing ready.

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