Germany mesmerized by president's fall from grace

BERLIN Mon Jan 23, 2012 11:44am EST

German President Christian Wulff attends a public talk with the publisher of the weekly Die Zeit, Josef Joffe (not pictured), at the Berliner Ensemble theatre in Berlin, January 22, 2012.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter

German President Christian Wulff attends a public talk with the publisher of the weekly Die Zeit, Josef Joffe (not pictured), at the Berliner Ensemble theatre in Berlin, January 22, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Scandals over money, power and political favors surrounding Germany's head of state are turning him into an object of derision and could harm Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in two elections this year.

President Christian Wulff, installed by Merkel in the largely ceremonial office in 2010, has brushed off calls to resign over some of the affairs state prosecutors are now investigating. But opinion polls suggest most Germans want him removed.

Analysts believe Wulff is becoming a liability for Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), who are already fighting uphill battles to retain control of the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland in elections later this year.

German presidents have limited formal powers but Wulff's nine post-war predecessors managed to become popular leaders as a voice of higher authority. The president is supposed to embody the nation's conscience largely via speeches and moral suasion.

But Wulff's standing has suffered in the last six weeks in which he has been under intense media fire for some relatively minor incidents stemming from his days as state premier of Lower-Saxony. Collectively they have left Wulff badly tarnished.

"It's a good thing we're not living in the Middle Ages," Wulff said during a public interview in Berlin Sunday with Die Zeit newspaper publisher Josef Joffe. When asked why, Wulff said: "I might have been burned at the stake."

Wulff faced scattered boos and catcalls from the crowd in Berlin, a new nadir for the 52-year-old conservative politician. He was also publicly labeled a liar this weekend by a Greens party leader from Lower Saxony state, Stefan Wenzel.

Wulff could have him charged with denigrating the head of state, carrying a maximum five-jail term, but has not responded.

Adding to Wulff's woes, police last week raided the home and office of his former spokesman, Olaf Glaeseker, in an inquiry into corruption.

LOST AUTHORITY

"Wulff has lost his authority and whenever he gives a speech ...people will be asking 'Is he telling the truth?' or 'Did someone pay him a sponsor fee?'," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

"Germans expect presidents to be honest and upstanding. In the public view Wulff is neither. He got privileged treatment and still doesn't understand that. Wulff is a burden for the CDU and could hurt their chances in the two elections this year."

Wulff, premier of Lower Saxony from 2003-2010, belatedly apologized for misleading the state parliament about a cheap 500,000 euro ($650,000) home loan from a businessman friend.

The president has also apologized for 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 also 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.

Even fellow CDU leaders have scoffed at Wulff's high-flying lifestyle. "I spend my summer holidays in a cottage in Denmark," one former CDU minister told Reuters. "No one understands why he couldn't just pay his own way."

Wulff faces new charges about whether he was truthful when asked if state taxpayer funds were used for a private business meeting in 2009. At the center of the latest scandal is a 3,400 euro bill for copies of a cook-book given away to all guests.

"The point is not the amounts involved," said Christoph Hoenniger, political scientist at Goettingen University. "The point is they tarnish his integrity. The public would forgive him for making political mistakes. But they won't forgive this sort of personal misconduct.

"A minister would have been forced to resign by now but Wulff probably isn't going to go," he added. "It might not be hurting Merkel personally right now. But in the long term it could hurt her party. The Wulff problem probably won't go away."

WULFF JOKES

The debate about Wulff has been a staple of talk shows; the nation's most popular talk show host Guenther Jauch has already devoted two 90-minute Sunday broadcasts to Wulff. One guest even pointed out there is a new German verb meaning to take something without paying for it -- wulffen (to wulff it).

Wulff has also been a godsend for comedians and satirists.

"Dear Mr. President, I've got five kids, I'm 55, and my ratings are down," said late night TV host Harald Schmidt. "So do me a favor and don't resign because I need you for my show!"

A car-hire firm ran adverts with a picture of Wulff over a slogan: "Have fun with us, even if you don't have rich friends."

Wulff remains a hot topic on commuter trains and at the office water cooler as public opinion tips against him. Only 31 percent see him as trustworthy, down from 74 percent in August.

"If Wulff had any character he'd resign," said Annett, a 48-year-old self-employed contractor. "The game is up for him no matter what excuses he comes up with or what anyone says."

Alfons Meier, a Berlin pensioner, agreed: "It's definitely time for him to step down."

But Maria Roeck, a bus driver, said it was still unclear whether Wulff had done anything wrong himself.

"Every little thing is being blown up out of proportion right now and who knows what really happened," she said. "If you ask me, he should stay in office."

But another Berlin woman, Ursula Schneider, said the drumbeat of criticism would not let up: "They'll keep going until they find something really damaging to Wulff and he won't be able to stand the pressure."

(Additional reporting by Tom Wagner)

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