Opposition candidate Gauck′s historic ties work both for and against him | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 29.06.2010
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Opposition candidate Gauck's historic ties work both for and against him

Joachim Gauck is the candidate that the opposition has nominated to take on the government's nominee, Christian Wulff, in Wednesday's German presidential election. So just who is Gauck - and what is his background?

Portrait, Joachim Gauck

Gauck rose up in the East German Lutheran church

The result of the upcoming presidential election seems to be a foregone conclusion - the CDU, CSU and FDP have enough votes to push through their candidate, Christian Wulff.

But the votes are yet to be cast. The Federal Convention is to meet on June 30. The 1,200-strong body is usually convened once every five years to elect a new head of state. This time, it was called four years early, after the last president, Horst Koehler, resigned suddenly last month.

The government's candidate to replace Koehler is Christian Wulff, the premier of the northern state of Lower Saxony and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. But Joachim Gauck, who was nominated by the opposition Social Democrats and the Green Party, poses something of a challenge - and is being seen by many in the German media as the better choice.

No party, just politics

But just who is Joachim Gauck? Well, he's a left-wing liberal conservative... or is that a conservative-liberal left-winger? Gauck describes his own politics both ways, and in doing so he cites Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski - the same man that Gesine Schwan, the opposition candidate in the last two German presidential elections, held in such high esteem.

Gauck may be a man without a party, but he is far from apolitical. He is not exactly an honorary candidate - rather something of a last-minute token. Still, he isn't just some absurd exotic bird, like television actor Peter Sodann, who was put forth for election by the Left party the last time around.

In 1999, the CSU would have liked to see him run against the eventual winner, Johannes Rau. At the time, Gauck refused. Again, in 2004, the first time Horst Koehler was nominated, there were more than a few people who thought Gauck would have been an ideal candidate.

Joachim Gauck

Gauck says his father's arrest and deportation marked him as a child

Gauck was born on Jan. 24, 1940, in Rostock, northeastern Germany, and grew up behind the Iron Curtain. In a memoir, he wrote that one event had greatly effected his childhood. In 1951, his father was arrested by the Soviet secret service, allegedly for spying. He was deported to Siberia, where he spent four years.

An East German story

With that family background, and since he wasn't a member of the socialist youth group FDJ (the only state-recognized and sponsored youth organization in East Germany,) Gauck failed to get the spot he wanted to study German Language and Letters in an East German university. Instead, in 1958, he began studying theology. He has been a pastor in the Lutheran Church of Mecklenburg - first in Luessow, then in Rostock - since 1965.

Gauck lived under constant observation by the East German Ministry of State Security - aka Stasi. He says he doesn't consider himself as having been a dissident at that time, but instead he was part of an anti-regime opposition movement, protected to some degree by the institution of the Lutheran Church.

The church played a key role in the events of 1989, the year the Wall came down. Gauck became the spokesman for the democratically popular anti-government movement Neues Forum (New Forum), which took to the streets to help topple the East German regime. He was the one who led the weekly church services, which became weekly marching demonstrations after church.

Starting in March, 1990, Gauck became a representative of the New Forum in the East German parliament.

Defender of documents

In that role, he first took on a job that would keep him busy for a decade: Securing the past misdemeanours of the Stasi. The people working for the repressive secret police force turned on their document-shredders as soon as the end of the regime became apparent. But across the state, people stormed Stasi buildings and put an end to the cover-up.

On Oct. 2, 1990, Gauck was named Special Representative for the Stasi archives. One day later, the German President at the time, Richard von Weizsaecker, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl confirmed his nomination. The title "Special Representative" later turned into "German Reperesentative". And the organization he led quickly became known, in casual conversation, as the "Gauck Agency."

In 2000, after two terms in office, Gauck passed operations on to his successor, Marianne Birthler. Despite a number of offers, he hasn't held political office since. But he has spoken out from time to time on different issues - often to the dismay of people who are nostalgic for the good-old-days of the GDR, or politicians suspected of having been in the Stasi.

Opposition from 'the Left'

So it is no wonder that members of Germany's Left party - itself a modern outgrowth of the East German Communist Party - seem to have the biggest problem with the idea of electing this left-wing-liberal-conservative to be Germany's next president.

Gauck portrait

Gauck's name has come up in connection with previous presidential elections

Party Chairwoman Gesine Loetzsch says she sees in Gauck a "man of the past;" she wishes for more "impulses for the future."

Gauck's attacks on long-time Left party chief Gregor Gysi are "not a good prerequisite for being elected," she has said. Loetzch's co-Chairman Klaus Ernst supports his arguments with a bit more content, saying that in terms of social policies, Gauck "stands ... for positions that one cannot share. Now we need a president that thinks of himself as the legal representative of German citizens, when welfare or parenting premiums are being cut."

No certain outcome

But Dietmar Bartsch, parliamentary group vice-president for the Left party in the Bundestag, says Gauck should at least get a vote in a possible second-round of polling.

Despite Gauck's being nominated on behalf of the SPD and Greens, it is far from decided for whom all the representatives of the ruling coalition in the Federal Convention will cast their votes.

CDU board member Dagmar Schipanski, who was once nominated for the presidency herself, said she would let her conscience decide who to elect when the time came.

Her CDU colleague Joerg Schoenbohm has said he wonders why it wasn't simply possible "to civilly agree with the SPD in favor of Gauck as a candidate."

Gauck himself has said he thinks a win is unlikely. But considering the lack of communication between the government and the people, Gauck says that if the vote turns out not to fall exactly along party lines, he wouldn't see it as a sign of a troubled democracy.

Author: Michael Gessat/jen
Editor: Rob Turner

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