Germany to elect outspoken rights activist as president

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Germany to elect outspoken rights activist as president
Berlin:  Former East German rights activist Joachim Gauck is set to become Germany's next president on Sunday, with hopes high he will restore dignity to the office in the wake of two scandal-tainted predecessors.

Mr Gauck, 72, enjoys the support of all of Germany's mainstream political parties, assuring his election by a special assembly that will gather at the glass-domed Reichstag parliament building in central Berlin.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fellow east German, threw her support behind the plain-spoken Lutheran pastor in February after President Christian Wulff resigned amid a flurry of allegations dating from before he took office.

Mr Wulff only served 20 months of his five-year term in office.

He had replaced Horst Koehler, a former head of the International Monetary Fund who stepped down after an uproar over comments he made appearing to justify using the military to serve Germany's economic interests.

Mr Gauck helped drive the peaceful revolution that brought down communist East Germany and later fought to ensure that the public would be granted access to extensive files left behind by the despised Stasi secret police after reunification in 1990. He oversaw the archive for the next decade.

The media and the public have cheered his candidacy as an opportunity to remove some of the tarnish from the largely ceremonial office which serves as a kind of moral compass for the nation.

Only the far-left Die Linke party, whose leaders include several former East German communists, has withheld its support and nominated the prominent Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld instead as a protest candidate.

Expectations are outsized for Mr Gauck, who has won a reputation across the country as an inspiring public speaker, albeit with a notorious touch of vanity.

But as a staunch Protestant like Chancellor Merkel, he is also keen to remind Germans that their hard-won freedoms carry weighty responsibilities with them -- a lifelong theme he has said he will take to the presidential palace.

"From Gauck we can learn that democracy means thinking and acting for one's self rather than waiting for political redeemers," the influential news weekly Die Zeit writes in its current issue.

Mr Gauck himself has warned scandal-weary Germans against seeing him as a redeemer, telling reporters the night he was nominated that they should not expect "Superman".

He said he would seek to relieve Germans of some of their angst as Europe grapples with its sovereign debt crisis and to reach out to immigrant groups to minimise their estrangement and foster integration.

The assembly, comprised of more than 1,200 MPs and other dignitaries, will gather for an ecumenical service at 0800 GMT before voting starts at around 1100 GMT.

The result should be announced by 1300 GMT, followed by a short speech by the new head of state.


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