People's choice faces big hurdle

By Tony Paterson

He is Germany's answer to Nelson Mandela and if public popularity was the deciding factor, he would be voted in as the country's new president by a huge majority today in the crucial election that will determine the future of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Government.

Joachim Gauck, a one-time East German dissident pastor, has all the experience, probity and stature that a majority of Germans yearn to see in the person occupying the highest office in the land.

The 71-year-old is the presidential candidate of Germany's Social Democratic and Green parties with a record that few fail to admire.

After seeing his father sent to the gulags for opposing communism, Gauck became a Protestant pastor in the port city of Rostock and spent decades fighting the totalitarian regime. He has described life under communism as a "daily insult".

In 1990 he was appointed head of reunited Germany's massive archive of Stasi files. He restored a sense of justice to millions of east Germans by giving them a chilling insight into the workings of a police state and enabling many to confront their former persecutors.

Opinion polls put him a clear 10 points ahead, but Gauck's chances of being elected rest on a knife edge, for ordinary German voters will not be taking part in his election.

Under Germany's postwar constitution, presidents are elected by the Federal Assembly - a special 1244-seat electoral body. And so party politics dominate the contest and they appear to favour Gauck's conservative opponent, Christian Wulff.

The 51-year-old is a career politician, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party since he was a schoolboy. He has served as the unremarkable Prime Minister of the state of Lower Saxony for the past seven years. As Germany's Die Zeit scathingly remarked last week: "He is brutally superficial."

Germany's presidential election is taking place three years ahead of schedule following last month's shock resignation of Horst Koehler, who stepped down after a row over remarks he made about Germany's presence in Afghanistan.

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