Friday 27 April 2018

Blow to Angela Merkel as German president Christian Wulff resigns

Bruno Waterfield

ANGELA Merkel's political authority has suffered a major blow after Germany's president Christian Wulff was today forced to resign after prosecutors asked for his immunity to be lifted as part of a corruption investigation.

Christian Wulff's resignation during a television address from the grandeur of the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin follows a string of scandals and now threatens the German Chancellor at the height of a testing eurozone debt crisis.

”I am today stepping down from the office of federal president to free up the way quickly for a successor.”

”The developments of the past few days and weeks have shown that trust and thus my effectiveness have been seriously damaged,” he said in a brief statement alongside his wife, adding that Germany needed “a president that enjoys the trust of not only a majority, but a broad majority of citizens.”

”For this reason it is no longer possible for me to exercise the office of president at home and abroad as required. I have made mistakes, but I was always honest.”

Following the resignation, Chancellor Merkel cancelled a planned trip to Rome to meet Mario Monti, the Italian Prime Minister, ahead of a critical eurozone meeting on Monday that will agree a second Greek bailout that is deeply controversial in Germany.

Replacing Mr Wulff, the second German president to step down amid controversy during Ms Merkel's time in office, will pose a new challenge to her authority ahead of Federal elections next year.

In a bid to sidestep a political crisis, the German Chancellor will approach opposition MPs to choose a consensus candidate, something she was criticised for not doing before.

”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,” she said in a sombre two-minute statement.

Prosecutors in Hanover demanded yesterday that MPs in Germany's Bundestag lift President Wulff's immunity to allow an investigation into allegations he abused his position by accepting favours when he was premier of the regional state of Lower Saxony.

The prosecutor also announced an “initial suspicion” against David Groenewold , Mr Wulff's film producer friend, who allegedly picked up the bills for a hotel and an upgrade during two holidays. Mr Wulff's lawyers have said he repaid the money in cash for one of the stays.

Mr Wulff, 52, has a largely ceremonial role but carries important weight as a moral arbiter above politics and it is the first time in Germany's history that the parliament has been asked to consider lifting the president's immunity.

In choosing Mr Wulff in 2010, Ms Merkel had hoped that by handpicking the inoffensive candidate she could shore up support for her government which has been rocked by a strong backlash against Germany's contribution of £175 billion in bailouts for the Greek and wider eurozone debt crisis.

But the president's courtship of celebrities, the wealthy and powerful in the business and media proved to be his undoing.

He left his long time wife Christiane in 2006 for public relations executive Bettina Koerner, 14 years his junior, and launched a charm offensive to mollify his Christian Democrat political base after the divorce.

They married in 2008 and have a small son, in addition to a teenage daughter from Mr Wulff's previous marriage, and he cultivated media contacts to enlist the powerful mass market Bild daily to help to restore his image as a wholesome family man.

But scandals erupted after it emerged businessmen had subsidised holidays and offered a helping hand at crucial moments, including a 2008 home loan from the wife of a tycoon friend that touched off the affair that has brought him down.

His cosy relations with the newspaper publishing group, Springer ,soured when he reportedly threatened journalists on two separate occasions over their reporting of scandals.

Last year, he courted controversy by and broke a political taboo by criticising the European Central Bank, whose independence is seen as sacrosanct in Germany.

He said it was “asking for trouble” by buying up sovereign bonds to help tackle the debt crisis, comments that were not helpful for the chancellor as she battled to convince her Christian Democrat party that Germany should support the eurozone.

His appointment and election in June 2010 came close to bringing down the Merkel administration after he stumbled over the finish line after a damaging result that took three rounds of voting.

Only two of 13 German presidential elections since 1949 have gone to a third round, the last time in 1994 with the election of Roman Herzog as a unified Germany's first president since Adolf Hitler.

Ms Merkel's choice came close to being unseated by Joachim Gauck, 72, a Protestant pastor and anti-Communist activist under East Germany's former dictatorship, who was nominated by the opposition and became a popular challenger.

Mr Gauck, who is expected to run again, is not affiliated to any party and his past as a civil rights activist has resonated with millions of Germans.

The presidential vote was triggered after Horst Koehler, another Christian Democrat, stood down in May 2010 in a surprise resignation that itself rocked Ms Merkel's government.

Mr Koehler resigned after sparking an outcry following his comments that Germans could no longer avoid involvement in military missions which helped “protect our interests, for example, free trade routes, or to prevent regional instability, which might certainly have a negative effect on our trade, jobs and income”.

A new German president to replace Mr Wulff will be chosen, probably in March, by a Federal Convention or Bundesversammlung of the German Parliament and delegates form regional states, known as the Lander

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