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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