King of Hearts

The Outspoken President

From pastor to president. Source: DPA
From pastor to president.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s former president Christian Wulff resigned in 2012 in a wave of recriminations and accusations of corruption. Joachim Gauck was appointed to restore goodwill and order to the office, and his performance will affect the status of the post.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Joachim Gauck was previously a Lutheran pastor.
    • In 1989, he founded an opposition movement in east Germany.
    • In the 1990s he worked as a ‘stasi hunter’ in tracking down the former secret police.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Last weekend, Germans had a chance to see their president Joachim Gauck at his best.

At an open day at the Bellevue Palace, the president’s office in Berlin, Mr. Gauck charmed his guests.  He spoke with them and more importantly, listened to them. He posesses a gift for connecting with people and understanding them.

After Germany’s disgraced President Christian Wulff stepped down in February 2012, in an unpleasant welter of accusations of corruption, people craved a new type of president: Mr. Gauck fitted the bill. He operated independently of the political parties, resisted the zeitgeist, and had an impeccable career, having spent his life working for freedom. He also brought a new glamour to the country, showing independence of spirit by moving into president’s residence with his unmarried partner.

A mid-term evaluation shows that Mr. Gauck, the pastor from the northeastern city of Rostock and former head of the government’s archive from East Germany’s secret police, has only partially achieved all that people hoped he would in his first two-and-a-half years in office. Last year, a biographer already speculated about signs of fatigue.

Mr. Gauck is surely the most popular politician in the country: Most of Germany’s presidents are liked by their citizens. But his speeches frequently set Berlin’s political arena abuzz. He frequently challenges the official line and takes on politicians, violating diplomatic practices and making life difficult for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Most recently, he used strong words about Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. At a speech in Gdańsk, Poland, remembering the outbreak of the Second World War, Mr. Gauck said Russia had “de facto” terminated a partnership built after the fall of the Berlin Wall between Russia, the European Union, NATO, and the group of leading industrialized nations. “We will adapt our policies, economies and readiness to defend to the new circumstances,” he said.

Here is a president who denounces the partnership with Russia, while the chancellor does not want to break off dialogue.

He said that the West must learn lessons from the past and stand up to Russia. This is a president who has denounced the partnership with Russia, while the chancellor does not want to break off the dialogue. Critics pointed out that someone who lives on the power of words must know what dangers originate with an escalation of words.

He was equally outspoken during a state visit to Turkey. Speaking in front of students at METU University, Mr. Gauck condemned the government’s offenses against human rights and the rule of law. The government had previously beaten back the resistance on Taksim Square, and had a history of meddling in the country’s judiciary and police force. The central theme of Mr. Gauck’s life — freedom — was viscerally on display there.

His political speeches at home also cause waves. He attacked the  government’s self-satisfaction with its economic policy in his speech about Germany’s lauded social-market economy. He spoke, unexpectedly, in favour of free-market neoliberalism, which is widely derided in Germany. Mr. Gauck ranted against too much regulation, and spoke out in favor of more competition and the market.

At the time, the ruling Grand Coalition in Berlin was working on draft legislation for a retirement age of 63 and a federal minimum wage. The chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel didn’t listen to him at the time. Mr. Gauck didn’t say too much after that either.

There remains the question over whether he will get a second term. The opposition pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens are in favor of it. Whether the ruling coalition of Ms. Merkel’s conservatives and Mr. Gabriel’s center-left Social Democrats will back him remains unclear. He was never the chancellor’s candidate anyway. Mr. Gauck himself is saying nothing.

In that respect, at least, he is being simply presidential.

This article was translated by Mary Beth Warner. To contact the author: Sigmund@handelsblatt.com 

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