BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's President made a rare foray into party politics on Sunday, questioning whether the party descended from the communists who once controlled East Germany is ready to run one of the reunified country's 16 states.
A week before celebrations marking a quarter century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Joachim Gauck said he still did not trust the radical Left party to govern well.
Gauck, whose post as head of state is largely ceremonial, is a former Lutheran pastor who campaigned for civil rights in the East during communist rule.
In a TV interview to be broadcast on Sunday, he said that while he respected the right of Thuringia in eastern Germany to choose its own premier after an election in September, he still had misgivings about the Left party.
"Well, people of my age who lived through the GDR (communist German Democratic Republic) find it hard to accept this," the 74-year-old president told ARD. "But we are a democracy."
"We respect the decision people make at the polls but ask ourselves at the same time: has the party that will provide the state premier really changed its ideas about repressing people so much from the time of the SED (German communists) that we can fully trust it?"
Gauck's comments were likely to reignite debate about the Left's pariah status, which partly stems from hardline policies like its opposition to membership of the euro zone and NATO.
The vote in Thuringia was an upset for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, who came first but without enough votes to extend a 24-year hold on power in the eastern state.
The Left came second under Bodo Ramelow, a 58-year-old trade unionist who grew up in West Germany. He is close to persuading the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens to make him the country's first state premier from the Left.
That would be a double blow to Merkel, as the SPD are her coalition partners at federal level.
There is no love lost between the SPD and the Left, which was formed in 2005 by reformed communists and an SPD splinter group.
But they have worked together at state level and the SPD dropped a self-imposed ban on coalitions with the Left last year, raising the possibility of a joint attempt to dislodge Merkel's conservatives at the next federal election in 2017.
Bernd Riexinger, co-chairman of the Left - the third-biggest party in the Bundestag lower house with strong support in parts of the east - said Gauck had "overstepped the mark".
"The Left is a democratic party which has come to terms with its past and ... has a right to form a government at the behest of the voters," Riexinger told reporters. "He (Gauck) has no right to criticize the Left so severely."
Additional reporting by Thomas Krumenacker; Writing by Stephen Brown, editing by John Stonestreet