German president resigns over political favors

AFP and Reuters, Friday 17 Feb 2012

Germany's Christian Wulff resigns from his post, leading Chancellor Angela Merkel to seek consensus among all political parties for a new candidate to replace the scandal-hit president

German President Christian Wulff, left, announces his resignation during a statement at the Bellevue Palace in Berlin, Germany, Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. (Photo:AP)

Angela Merkel's hand-picked choice for the ceremonial post of president resigned on Friday in a scandal over political favors, dealing a blow to the German chancellor in the midst of the euro zone crisis.

In a curt five-minute statement at the Bellevue presidential palace, Christian Wulff said he had lost the trust of the German people, making it impossible to continue in a role that is meant to serve as a moral compass for the nation.

"For this reason it is no longer possible for me to exercise the office of president at home and abroad as required," Wulff said, standing next to his wife Bettina.

Merkel postponed a trip to Rome where she was to hold talks with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and made a brief statement after Wulff spoke, saying she regretted his departure.

The situation changed dramatically for Wulff on Thursday evening when state prosecutors in Hannover asked parliament to end his legal immunity over accusations he accepted favors in a prelude to opening an investigation into him.

It is the first time ever that prosecutors have wanted to investigate a German president and the move triggered direct calls from opposition parties for the 52-year old Wulff to go.

He is the second president to step down within two years. His predecessor, former International Monetary Fund chief Horst Koehler, resigned unexpectedly in 2010 after coming under fire for comments he made about the German mission in Afghanistan.

Until now, Wulff, who was conservative state premier of the state of Lower Saxony before becoming president, had said he would stay in office to clear his name. He reiterated his desire to hang on to his post in a briefing with journalists on Thursday evening.

At a time when Merkel is trying to solve the crisis enveloping the single currency bloc, the last thing she needs is the distraction of a presidential resignation and a potentially divisive search for a replacement.

Analysts say Wulff's departure could become a problem for Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) who are struggling to retain control of the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland in elections later this year.

The resignation reflects badly on Merkel's judgment as she forcefully pushed for Wulff's election against a strong opposition candidate who polls show was backed by most Germans. 

Wulff's image as head of state has suffered badly in recent months and he has been mocked in the German media.

He belatedly apologized for misleading the Lower Saxony state parliament about a cheap 500,000 euro ($650,000) home loan from a businessman friend.

Wulff also admitted to making a "grave mistake" by leaving a message on the answering machine of the editor of Germany's best-selling Bild newspaper threatening a "war" if the daily published a story about his private finance dealings.

He was later criticized for accepting free upgrades for holiday flights for himself and his family as well as staying free of charge at the holiday villas of wealthy businessmen.

Merkel said she had "great respect" for, but also "deep regret" over, his decision to step down in the wake of a series of scandals.


"This won't be without consequences for Merkel, her reputation will suffer from it," said Gerd Langguth, political scientist at Bonn University.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday she would hold talks with all major political parties to find a consensus candidate to replace the scandal-hit state president after his resignation.

"We want to hold talks with the aim of being able to propose a joint candidate for the next president of the Federal Republic of Germany," Merkel told reporters in a sombre two-minute statement.

Merkel said she would first speak to the parties in Germany's coalition government -- her own centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the CSU, and the pro-business Free Democrats.

According to coalition sources contacted by AFP, such a meeting could take place as early as Saturday.

She would then open negotiations with opposition parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the ecologist Greens, to find a unity candidate.

The SPD's general secretary Andrea Nahles said: "I welcome the offer of Chancellor Angela Merkel to find a joint candidate for the office of federal president."

It took nine hours and three rounds of voting by a special assembly of MPs and public figures for Wulff to be elected.

With Merkel's coalition holding a majority in the assembly, the election should have been a shoo-in in the first round, but a handful of rebels voted against Wulff in the secret ballot.

A possible successor is Joachim Gauck, an anti-Communist human rights activist in East  Germany who ran against Wulff in 2010 and embarrassed Merkel by forcing the election into a third round.

Other potential candidates include Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen and possibly Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, though shifting him to Bellevue palace would leave a gaping hole in Merkel's cabinet in the midst of the euro zone sovereign debt crisis.





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