BERLIN (Reuters) - Angela Merkel has dominated the German landscape for over half a decade, outmaneuvering and outshining would-be rivals to become the most popular political figure in the country.
After the election of Joachim Gauck to the post of president, however, the German chancellor may find herself sharing the spotlight with a man whose popularity rivals her own and whose willingness to speak his mind could make her life a little less comfortable.
Gauck, a 72-year old Lutheran pastor who was active in the peaceful protest movement that helped bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall, poses no real threat to Merkel and her seemingly iron grasp on power in Berlin.
But his strong opinions and political independence stand in strong contrast to his predecessor Christian Wulff, whom Merkel hand-picked for the presidency in 2010 only to see him resign in disgrace last month in a scandal over financial favors.
Gauck’s strengths - an easy charisma, a knack for moving people with his rhetoric, and a record of anti-government activism in the East - also happen to be weaknesses of Merkel.
These factors may partly explain why she resisted his candidacy so fiercely before her coalition partner, the Free Democrats, broke ranks and threw their weight behind Gauck, forcing her into a reversal and setting the stage for him to be confirmed in the post on Sunday.
“I think Gauck will be uncomfortable for Merkel because he is not a member of a party and will not feel bound by any party obligations,” said Norbert Robers, a biographer of Gauck who has known him for 20 years. “This independence and the freedom it gives can be unpleasant for politicians.”
By all accounts Merkel and Gauck have a good personal relationship. She gave a heartfelt address at his 70th birthday party two years ago and he spoke at the launch of her biography back in 2005.
The similarities between the two biographies jump out immediately. Both grew up in communist East Germany. And Merkel’s father was a Protestant pastor there, just like Gauck.
Senior members of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) say worries that the heavily Catholic party would have trouble swallowing two Protestants from the east in such prominent positions were partly behind her opposition to his candidacy.
Dig under the surface, however, and it is the differences between the two that stand out.
Gauck’s life in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) was shaped by the experience of his father, who was packed into a blue Opel by two members of the Stasi on a summer day in 1951 when Gauck was 11 years old and sent off to a Soviet Gulag, accused of being part of a subversive spy ring.
He didn’t return for four years.
Because of this event, even the smallest form of fraternization with the political system in East Germany was anathema to Gauck and his family, he says in his autobiography.
By the 1970s Gauck was attracting attention for his criticism of the regime, and in the decade before the Berlin Wall fell, he came increasingly under the scrutiny of the Stasi, which compiled files on him under the code-name “Larva”.
Records show the East German secret police viewed him as an “unreformable anti-communist” who abused his position as a pastor in the northern city of Rostock to turn youths into enemies of the state.
Merkel’s father Horst Kasner, by contrast, belonged to a wing of the protestant church that worked with, not against, the political system.
Kasner sought help from above when a class project in Merkel’s last year of high school infuriated the authorities, raising questions about whether the students would receive their diplomas.
She graduated in the end and went on to study her preferred subject physics, while the children of many other pastors, including Gauck’s sons, saw their education blocked by the East German government.
“Merkel found herself a niche where she didn’t need to express her opinions,” a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said, referring to her physics studies. “She didn’t cross the red lines. With Gauck it was different.”
It was only after the Wall fell that Merkel became politically active. She joined the CDU, caught the eye of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and in no time was vaulted into his first post-reunification cabinet as minister for women and youth.
For his part, Gauck broke ranks with many prominent voices in the East when the GDR collapsed, pressing for reunification.
He was later given the sensitive job of overseeing the notorious files of the Stasi, where he resisted pressure from westerners to move the extensive archives to West Germany and from easterners to destroy them completely, insisting instead that they remain in Berlin and be opened up to academic researchers and ordinary citizens interested in reading their own files.
As president, Gauck is expected to push his signature theme of “freedom”, a topic Merkel often seems uncomfortable with despite her eastern roots.
“Gauck is someone who can touch people with a speech in a way Merkel can‘t,” said Gerd Langguth, a political scientist at Bonn University and biographer of Merkel. “He is a joyful protestant, she is a dutiful protestant.”
Although German presidents have largely ceremonial functions, they are looked upon to act as a moral compass for the nation and can influence the political debate with words.
Former president Richard von Weizsaecker, for example, is remembered for describing the end of World War Two as a “day of liberation” from Nazi dictatorship for Germany in a speech to parliament on May 8, 1985.
Gauck’s readiness to speak his mind on controversial issues, a trait Merkel is not known for, is one reason for his popularity.
In recent years it has also gotten him into trouble and people who know him say he will have to change his approach as president, when he will have the ear of 82 million Germans.
He has been criticized for calling Thilo Sarrazin, a disgraced former German central banker who wrote an anti-immigration book many viewed as racist, “courageous” for speaking out on the issue.
Gauck also dismissed the “Occupy” protest movement as “ridiculous” and made comments about Greece and euro zone bailouts which some say showed his skepticism towards Europe.
Manfred Guellner, head of polling group Forsa, disputes the notion that Gauck will outshine Merkel with his rhetorical skills, saying the chancellor has managed to turn her “charisma deficit” into a strength during the euro zone debt crisis.
Recent polls show she has even managed to turn what looked like a humiliating reversal on Gauck’s candidacy into a positive, winning plaudits for her flexibility.
“People won’t be comparing the president to the chancellor, they can coexist without one outshining the other,” said Guellner.
But Gauck’s presence could raise pressure on Merkel to come up with signature themes of her own in the run-up to the 2013 federal election, when she will be trying for a third term and thinking about her legacy. The charge against Merkel until now is that she has been more mediator than leader, co-opting or shooting down the ideas of others instead of setting out a grand vision herself.
With an outspoken ideas man in Bellevue presidential palace, the risk is that Merkel’s caution looks less and less like an asset.
editing by Janet McBride