Germany's head of state, 76-year-old President Joachim Gauck, said Monday he won't seek a second term in 2017 due to his age, a move that could cause complications for Chancellor Angela Merkel heading into an election year.
Gauck told reporters at his office in Berlin that he would complete his five-year term but didn't feel he was up to another because “the years between 77 and 82 are different than those that I'm in right now.''
“Until the end of my term, I will seriously and happily fulfill my duties,'' he said.
Following the announcement, Merkel said she had been hoping Gauck would stay for a second term but that “I respect the decision of the president.''
A new president will be chosen in February, an awkward time for Merkel who faces national elections later in 2017. With no obvious successor for Gauck, the search for a candidate seems likely to be complicated as factions in Merkel's coalition government seek their own nominee.
There are already questions over whether her Christian Democratic Union and Bavarian-only sister party Christian Social Union will be able to agree upon a joint candidate, and many see the situation as a test of Merkel's authority.
Some names being mentioned include Merkel's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, or Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is a member of Merkel's coalition partner Social Democrats.
Merkel said she would hold broad discussions about a successor to Gauck beyond her CDU-CSU party circle but was not more specific.
Germany's president performs a largely ceremonial role that has little executive power, but is considered an important moral authority.
Last year, Gauck labeled the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a century ago as “genocide'' in a speech supported by the German government, marking a shift in the country's stance after officials previously avoided the term. His words were echoed last week in a resolution passed by Germany's Parliament.
In a gesture of reconciliation in 2013, Gauck met with French President Francois Hollande at the site of the largest civilian massacre in Nazi-occupied France, Oradour-sur-Glane, saying he shared the bitterness of those in France “over the fact that the murderers have not been brought to justice.'' It was the first visit to the ghost town by a serving German leader.
More recently, Gauck has also spoken out against the rise of anti-Islam populist groups and their anti-migrant message, saying Germans should remember its own nation's history of fleeing war and persecution.
Gauck, a former East German pro-democracy activist with no political affiliation, won wide backing from Germany's mainstream parties when elected by lawmakers in 2012 and is very popular, with recent polls showing about 70 percent supporting him for a second term.
“This decision was not easy for me, because I consider it a great honor to serve this country,'' Gauck said.