BERLIN -- It all began with a jolt, and hasn't stopped jolting yet! Presidents in Germany are not too important. They do have a veto right. They make occasional speeches, pin on medals, and take the oaths of new cabinet ministers, making them a notch or two more useful than Elizabeth II.
When President Koehler set a precedent a month ago by resigning after an ill-considered interview, admitting far too candidly that German troops were sent abroad for commercial purposes, it came as a surprise but got hardly more attention than rougher problems like winning in a world soccer championships in South Africa. But the sudden decision kept gaining importance like a snowball setting off a minor avalanche.
A replacement was needed by June 30. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the real boss, decided with her retinue (or maybe by herself) on Christian Wulff, 51, the minister president of Lower Saxony. He is handsome, has a nice family, a friendly smile, and has made no major blunders in his conservative career as a Christian Democrat. By kicking him upstairs, Merkel would be rid of the last regional party leader who might threaten her leadership.
Since her CDU and its coalition partner, the fat cat Free Democrats, even further to the right, had a slim but clear majority in the special electoral college with 1,244 parliamentarians and delegates from all states, it all seemed cut and dried.
But then the Social Democrats and Greens, now in the opposition, had a great idea. As a rival candidate they nominated Joachim Gauck, 70, a retired East German pastor, once a leader in the victorious uprising of 1989-1990, then for 10 years head of the giant government bureau processing material from the GDR State Security forces, or Stasi.
Using this material, the bureau decided the fates of countless former GDR citizens who were involved at some time in their lives with the Stasi, either snooping and spying on colleagues or friends (with similarities to the FBI informer network), in harmless encounters as adolescents, in contacts required by even minor managerial jobs, and as often motivated by devotion to the GDR as by money or pure nastiness.
Some of the evidence was based on boasting or hearsay but regardless of degree or motivation, thousands were affected by the so-called Gauck Authority. Careers were wrecked; teachers, historians, linguists, surgeons, writers fired. Some took their own lives. Many saw Gauck as a sort of composite Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover and a symbol of hatred and rejection of everything in the GDR, good or bad.
Others, especially in West Germany where the Stasi paint brush had been wielded most broadly, saw Gauck as a democratic hero, rather like Reagan.
When the SPD and Greens nominated him, nearly the entire media, above all the Springer tabloid Bild, with its millions of readers, switched on, almost overnight, a giant hype campaign in favor of Gauck, even though it had in the past always supported Merkel and the Free Democrats against Greens and Social Democrats.
The plan was doubly masterful. On one hand, it cashed in on growing dissatisfaction with the government and with parties and politicians in general. Gauck was retired and not in any party.
The only message the granite-jawed Gauck ever conveyed was repetition of the words "democracy," "freedom" and "German unification," plus attacks against the horrible GDR, which had "oppressed him so terribly" that in every speech, at every mention, he had to fight back the tears. He never mentioned that in the GDR he had studied theology at public expense, regularly led a congregation, and been able to send his children off legally to studies in West Germany, causing unfriendly rumors as to the contacts he must have had with the Stasi to gain this rare privilege.
Nor did he say much about political policies. It only gradually leaked out that he favored sending troops to Afghanistan, opposed most social measures, and had always felt closer to the CDU and the Free Democrats.
Yet it was the SPD and the Greens who nominated him. As the campaign wound down their motives became clear; this was one more attack on the young party, The Left. It had been winning votes and members from both Social Democrats and Greens. People recalled that it was these two parties, when they were in command, which cut aid to the unemployed, raised the retirement age, increased sales taxes while sharply cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy, sent German troops to wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and still supported the latter war (though with many Greens defecting).
It seemed that they made promises, sounding very leftist whenever they were out of office, but only then. And the Social Democrats had lost disastrously in the September elections.
But if they were able to switch the subject back to the old GDR and its crimes, though it had been dead for 20 years, it might still be possible to isolate and delegitimize the Left. Did you ever or do you now support anything the bad GDR did? It was almost like the famous old lawyer's question: Have you stopped beating your wife yet? This kind of campaign was just the job for Gauck!
The SPD and Greens nominated Gauck without consulting the Left, knowing full well that many or most of its members could not support him. But they insisted on just that: Support Gauck and curse the GDR, or stand condemned as supporters of intolerance, injustice, dictatorship, Stalinism!
But the Left chose its own candidate, Lukrezia Jochimsen, 74, a West German, once a foreign correspondent in England, then the head of Hessian Radio-TV, who quit the Social Democrats in protest when they joined in bombing Serbia. Later she joined the Left.
During the short campaign, ignored but still harried by the media, she agreed to condemn injustice in the GDR but refused to say the entire GDR was unjust in everything. Nor could she support Gauck, who favored war in Afghanistan and opposed humane measures for the jobless and the low-paid.
The decision came on Wednesday, with 1,244 electors representing all the country's legislators. To win, a candidate had to gain at least 50 percent - 623 votes - on the first or second ballots. If no-one achieved that, the candidate with a plurality, the most votes, would win on the third ballot.
Since Merkel's two government parties had 644 electors they counted on a quick victory, despite hints that some members, disgruntled at the lack of any achievements except side-swiping in nine months in office, or taken by Joachim Gauck's moving rhetoric, his tears or his newly-discovered smile, might desert the Merkel candidate Christian Wulff.
And, sure enough, 44 did indeed abstain, or even vote the wrong way, giving Wulff only 600 votes, 23 short of the required majority, while Gauck got 499, and Jochimsen from the Left got 126, two more than its number of electors.
The Social Democrats and Greens did their sums and angrily denounced the Left; if you had all voted for our freedom-loving Gauck, he would have won on the first ballot with 625 votes.
The Left recalled again: despite its offers, the others had not consulted with them beforehand on a mutually agreeable candidate but now demanded the Left's votes for a man at least as right-wing as Christian Wulff.
The second ballot, a few hours later, did not change much. After earnest pep talks aimed at the anonymous deserters, Wulff had 15 more votes but was still 8 short of the number needed. Gauck lost 9 votes, the Left lost 3. Even had they joined votes this time, it would not have sufficed.
Before the third vote, where only a simple plurality was needed, the Left held a long secret caucus meeting. Social Democratic and Green bargainers made a last minute plea for Left support for Gauck. When this was rejected, they denounced the Left in far angrier tones than ever used against Wulff, their alleged opponent, whom they had carefully avoided attacking.
The Left and its candidate were snubbed and ignored during the entire campaign. Now suddenly its key role was highlighted; if it could force all its electors to choose Gauck, might it not by some miracle still sway the returns?
After the final ballot was postponed for over an hour, a perspiring Gregor Gysi, tie awry, emerged from the Left caucus which he chaired to tell the journalists: Ms. Jochimsen has withdrawn her candidacy. Although we oppose both conservative candidates and recommend abstention, voting is secret and our members are free to make their own decisions.
The attacks of the Social Democrats became truly threatening: If the Left refuse to support Gauck it means they have not rejected their own nasty history in the GDR, they have cut themselves off from the body politic, etc., etc. It boiled down to a threat not to join with the Left in coming struggles against oppressive government policies: Who, after all, could work with such awful people?
That caucus had decisive internal importance for the Left. If many of its electors were to vote for Gauck after all, while others abstained, this could well cause a deep split in a party which had only recently patched up a fragile unity, an agreement by most leaders to work together. It could in fact wreck the party. Just that, or at least its total isolation, had clearly been the main aim of the entire Gauck campaign, even more than the chance to embarrass Merkel and her government.
The 1,244electors and observers near and far waited with baited breath for the third, final ballot. The chairman announced the results in his careful, clear manner: Gauck 494 votes; Wulff 625 votes, two more than the now unnecessary absolute majority, and thus a total moral victory. Abstentions 121. Only 3 of the 124 Left electors had broken ranks to vote for Gauck. The party would not be split.
Wulff and Gauck both got giant ovations. The Greens and Social Democrats were quick to congratulate Wulff, politely and without rancor. They had never really been against him. But although the Left had withdrawn its candidate and its abstentions had no longer affected the outcome, they could still not refrain from further vitriolic attacks against that party.
Their plan, clever as it was, had not really worked out. It had made Gauck popular, but had not won him victory. It had embarrassed Merkel and her coalition, but would hardly bring it down. It had not split the Left.
Had it weakened and isolated it, ending its slow, steady growth in East and West? All four older parties feared the Left not just as a competitor for votes, but because the miserable state of the economy and the harsh measures all four had enacted or endorsed were causing many in the East and some in the West to recall the GDR not as a model, but as a place with no jobless, no homeless, free medical care, child care and education. Maybe something could be learned from it. Alarm bells were sounding! Some people were thinking about both capitalism and socialism!
So the old GDR, dead for 20 years, was again disinterred, immolated for the umpteenth time and used as an ultimatum to weaken and split resistance.
A few Social Democrats and some Greens rejected this policy, which had not paid off, and were looking for common cause - even with the Left - against the painful economic plans currently being hatched out by Merkel, her vice-chancellor Westerwelle and their whole government, aimed against the jobless, the low-paid, the students and the children.
Perhaps Gauck would be forgotten and the battle rejoined.
Photo: Germany's presidential loser Joachim Glauck. CC