Christian Wulff may have resigned as German president in mid-February, but the negative headlines haven't gone away. Many people in Germany are up in arms that he is eligible for 199,000 euros a year in pension.
The irony is impossible to overlook. On February 17, Christian Wulff was forced to resign as German president amidst allegations he improperly profited from virtually interest-free loans and complementary vacations while state premier of Lower Saxony. Those matters are now the subject of a prosecutors' investigation.
But in departing the office, Wulff became eligible for an annual pension, an office, a staff of assistants and a chauffeur that would cost German taxpayers some 288,000 euros a year.
Many had speculated that Wulff, after resigning under a cloud, would be barred from claiming the pension and ancillary benefits. But the Office of the President, which deals with matters concerning the presidency, ruled late last month that Wulff was due the severance package - which amounts to around 16 times the average pension in Germany and some five times the median income in the country.
Some had expected the 52-year-old to voluntarily forgo the perks. But news magazine Der Spiegel reported last weekend that Wulff was planning to apply for the money and the other benefits.
And that has unleashed a storm of criticism.
Germany's presidential pension is called an "Ehrensold," a somewhat antiquated term that literally translates as "honor reward." Very few public figures other than the president are eligible for it, and none at anywhere near the level of almost 200,000 euros a year. Wulff's predecessor in office, Horst Köhler, voluntarily refused to accept this form of compensation.
Opposition politicians were quick to criticize the Wulff severance package, saying the former president should at least forgo an office and a staff.
"Wulff hasn't been showing any particular sensitivity on this issue," Green Party co-chair Claudia Roth told the dpa news agency on Monday.
Former Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was far more blunt.
"Wulff did great damage to the office of the president and indeed to the entire political class," Schmidt said in an interview with Bild newspaper. "He was the victim of his own behavior."
Predictably, non-politicians are even more dismayed. In an online survey carried out by Bild, 90 percent of respondents said Wulff deserved neither money nor other privileges.
"To grant Mister Wulff the Ehrensold is a slap in the face of all truly honorable people," one angry respondent wrote.
What's more, a few people are now not only questioning the presidential pension, but the presidency itself.
An outmoded office?
The German president is the head of state of the Federal Republic of Germany, but the political authority of the office is limited. The president must sign all laws passed by the German parliament and is reponsible for dissolving the Bundestag in case a chancellor loses a vote of confidence. Otherwise, the president functions as a symbolic, diplomatic representative of the country.
As the debate surrounding Wulff's pension unfolds, some are now arguing that the office is superfluous.
"The basic question is: what do we need a German president for?" Free Democrat bundgetary expert Jürgen Koppelin said in an interview with the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. "The president examines laws. But if a law appears questionable, that can be done by the Federal Constitutional Court."
This is a minority view, at least among politicians. But a further irony in the debate about whether and how Wulff should be compensated is the fact that he himself criticized the amount of the presidential pension as excessive before taking up the office.
Wulff's successor in spe, the former eastern German civil rights activist Joachim Gauck, is a more popular figure across the political spectrum and among the general populace. Popular anger may well recede if he takes office, as expected, later this month.
But the Wulff affair has occasioned new skepticism about a position that has been an unquestioned part of the Federal Republic of Germany.
"The general public cannot understand at all why it should pay almost 200,000 euros a year for a failed president," Green parliamentarian Steffi Lemke told Sunday paper Bild am Sonntag.
So when the German Federal Convention, a mixture of federal and state representatives, elects a new president on March 18, there will likely be futher discussions about whether a presidential pension on this scale can be truly justified.
Authors: Dirk Kaufmann, Jefferson Chase
Editor: Nicole Goebel