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German president quits

February 17, 2012

Germany's president has tendered his resignation. Christian Wulff had been under pressure since allegations arose he had improperly accepted benefits. Support had fallen dramatically among the public and politicians.

Christian Wulff
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

German President Christian Wulff tendered his resignation, he said at a press conference in his official residence in Berlin on Friday.

Wulff said he enjoyed being president, but that Germany needed someone in the job who large swathes of society trusted.

"The developments of the last few days and weeks have shown that this trust, and along with it my ability to have an impact, has been effectively compromised," he said.

The move comes just hours after the prosecutor’s office in Hanover announced that it had asked for the German head of state’s immunity from prosecution to be removed, so that it could open a criminal investigation into allegations that Wulff had improperly granted or accepted favors.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on Friday that the governing coalition parties aimed to find a presidential candidate that the main opposition, the Social Democrats and Greens, would also back.

Merkel had cancelled a planned trip to Italy to meet with Prime Minister Mario Monti ahead of Wulff's announcement.

Simmering scandal

President Wulff had been facing growing pressure since allegations first emerged last December that he had failed to declare a private home loan received from the wife of a wealthy businessman friend while he was premier of the northern state of Lower Saxony. When opposition members asked him whether he had any ties to businessman Egon Geerkens, Wulff remained silent.

After several days of refusing to personally comment on the story, Wulff emerged to read a short statement to reporters in which he apologized for his lack of transparency about the 500,000-euro ($643,150) loan, which he received in 2008.

"I was not straightforward, and I am sorry about that," he said.

The statement did little to satisfy the president's critics, particularly in the opposition. Shortly before Wulff's appearance, the news also emerged, that his press spokesman and long-time confidant, Olaf Glaeseker, had been relieved of his duties, for what at the time were unknown reasons. Glaeseker is currently under investigation over allegations of corruption.

Pressure on the press

Public opinion appeared to really start to turn against Wulff when a fresh report emerged that the president had called the editor-in-chief of the mass-circulation newspaper Bild to try to get him to kill the home-loan report before it was published. Unable to reach Kai Dieckmann, Wulff left an angry message on the editor's voice mail.

Among other things, the president said the paper had gone too far with the story and had "crossed a red line." Wulff later reached the editor and apologized for the message.

However, the resulting allegations of attempting to influence the press led the president to request a joint interview with Germany's two national public television stations, in which he sought to defuse the scandal. Again he was unsuccessful, as Bild rejected the president's assertion in the interview that he had not tried to stop the paper from publishing the report, but had merely tried to delay its publication.

After that, a number of stories emerged about the president allegedly receiving considerations from wealthy businesspeople. Wulff denied having done anything illegal.

Prosecutor's request signaled end

The last straw came on Thursday, when the state prosecutor in Hanover called for lifting the immunity from prosecution Wulff enjoyed as head of state, so that he could launch a criminal investigation. The prosecutor said his office had found sufficient grounds for an 'initial suspicion' of accepting or granting favors."

The latest scandal involves media allegations that film producer David Groenewold paid for a vacation Wulff spent on the island of Sylt as well as a short break in Munich during Oktoberfest in 2007. A year earlier, Lower Saxony, which Wulff led as state premier at the time, had approved a four-million-euro ($5.3-million-dollar) credit guarantee for one of Groenewold's projects.

In the hours that followed the prosecutor's announcement, political support for Wulff quickly unraveled, even within Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition, which had voted him into office, following the resignation of former President Horst Köhler in 2010.

Wulff, who served as premier of the state of Lower Saxony from 2003 until 2010, grew up in the northern town of Osnabrück. His family life was not without turbulence. His natural father abandoned the family when he was just two years old. After his stepfather walked out 14 years later, Wulff cared for his seriously ill mother and helped bring up his younger sister.

He completed his law degree at the University of Osnabrück in 1987 and practiced law until entering politics.

German presidents are elected by a special "Federal Convention," which exists expressly for that purpose. The body, which is made up of over 1,200 parliamentarians and other representatives of society, must come together within 30 days of a head of state's resignation to begin the process of selecting a new one.

pfd/ncy (Reuters, dpa, AFP)