BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed on Sunday to support former East German rights activist Joachim Gauck for the presidency, averting a fight with opposition parties that might have distracted her from tackling the euro zone crisis.
Merkel confirmed her support for Gauck, 72, two days after Christian Wulff, her hand-picked choice for president in 2010, resigned in a scandal involving financial favours.
The announcement paves the way for Gauck, a Protestant pastor who was a leading figure in the peaceful protest movement that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, to be confirmed in the ceremonial post by the Federal Assembly in the coming weeks.
"Let's not forget that it was churchmen like Joachim Gauck who helped bring about East Germany's peaceful revolution," Merkel, herself the daughter of a Protestant pastor who grew up in the failed German Democratic Republic (GDR), told a news conference in the Chancellery in Berlin.
Wulff's departure was a blow to Merkel because she pushed through his election in 2010 despite the fact many Germans and the leading opposition parties wanted Gauck to become president.
By supporting Gauck now, Merkel exposes herself to accusations that she erred in her choice two years ago. But refusing to back him could have unleashed a divisive battle with the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens that might have been even more harmful.
Berlin is spearheading European efforts to save Greece from a chaotic default and Merkel cannot afford to be distracted by domestic political fights.
She is riding a wave of popularity at home for her steady leadership in the debt crisis and may have come to the conclusion that jumping on the Gauck bandwagon was the best way to keep her momentum.
Gauck was one of a number of pastors who supported the protests that ultimately brought down the East German regime, setting the stage for the reunification of Germany in 1990.
When Gauck was 11, his father was arrested by communist authorities and sent to the Gulag in Siberia.
After the Berlin Wall fell, Gauck ran the state-run archives on the Stasi, earning recognition for exposing the crimes of the dreaded East German secret police.
DIG AT MERKEL
Appearing somewhat overwhelmed, Gauck told reporters he had just landed in Berlin and was getting into a taxi when Merkel called to give him the news.
"What moves me the most is that a person who was born during this sinister, dark war and then lived through 50 years of dictatorship, that such a person should be called upon to become head of state," Gauck said.
"The most important thing for me is that the people in this country learn once again that they live in a good country that they can love."
The opposition SPD and Greens, who nominated him two years ago, argue that he is the ideal person to restore credibility to the office after the premature departure of Wulff and his predecessor Horst Koehler, the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
While the president has no power over policy, the person in the role has been seen as a source of moral guidance and can influence the political debate by giving speeches.
Merkel was criticised in 2010 because many Germans thought Wulff, a regional politician from her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with no major accomplishments to his name, did not have the right profile for the job.
Influential weekly Der Spiegel put a picture of Gauck on its cover in June that year, shortly after Merkel nominated Wulff, with the headline "The better president."
At the news conference with Merkel, SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel couldn't resist taking a dig at her for refusing to back Gauck the first time around.
"We Social Democrats put forward Joachim Gauck at the last Federal Assembly and I am sure that since then ... everyone regrets the fact Joachim Gauck was not elected," Gabriel said.
Sources had told Reuters earlier on Sunday that Merkel's conservatives were reluctant to back him, instead favouring theologian Wolfgang Huber or Klaus Toepfer, former head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
But the chancellor's own coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), opposed both of those candidates and threw its support behind Gauck on Sunday, leaving Merkel little choice.
With broad support, the Federal Assembly is likely to confirm him as president without a hitch. The Assembly, a 1,244-seat body composed of national and state representatives, must vote in a new president by March 18.