German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) looks at former East German rights activist Joachim Gauck, joint candidate of government and opposition for the post of president, at the Chancellery in Berlin February 19, 2012. (Image: Reuters)
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.
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.
The opposition SPD and Greens, who nominated Gauck 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).
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.