Germans aghast as Merkel loses 2nd president in two years

BERLIN Fri Feb 17, 2012 7:00am EST

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BERLIN Feb 17 (Reuters) - To lose one president may be considered a misfortune. To lose two within two years looks like carelessness.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be reflecting on Oscar Wilde's aphorism about parents after scandals over money, power and political favours drove President Christian Wulff to resign on Friday.

Wulff, installed by Merkel in the largely ceremonial office in 2010, had tried to tough it out, threatening the nation's top selling newspaper, depicting himself as a victim of persecution and refusing to answer questions on sleaze allegations on every stop during a state visit to Italy this week.

But he bowed to a growing tide of public anger and derision after prosecutors called on Thursday for his legal immunity to be lifted in an investigation about suspected favours from a businessman.

Analysts said Wulff had become a liability for Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), who are fighting to retain control of the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland in elections later this year.

His predecessor, former International Monetary Fund chief Horst Koehler, stunned Merkel by resigning in a fit of pique 20 months ago after being criticised in the media for comments on Germany's military role.

The chancellor cancelled a trip to Italy on Friday and said she would talk to the opposition about finding a consensus candidate, reversing her attitude in 2010 when she insisted on Wulff, a grey regional party baron, and refused to back respected former East German human rights campaigner Joachim Gauck to succeed Koehler.

German presidents have limited formal powers but most of 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. Wulff had become an embarrassment and the butt of jokes and carnival parades.

His standing was tarnished by two months of intense media fire over incidents stemming from his days as state premier of Lower-Saxony, which independent prosecutors have deemed serious enough to warrant formal investigation.

His self-pitying response only aggravated the situation.

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

That drew scattered boos and catcalls from the audience, a new nadir for the 52-year-old politician. Adding to his woes, police later raided the home and office of his former spokesman, Olaf Glaeseker, in an inquiry into corruption.

More than 400 protesters waved their shoes outside Wulff's official residence last Saturday to call for his resignation. One banner joked: "Mr Wulff, I'll pay for your removal."

LOST AUTHORITY

Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said Wulff had lost his authority and would always have faced questions about his probity.

"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 apologised for misleading the state parliament about a cheap 500,000 euro ($650,000) home loan from a businessman friend.

The president also apologised 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.

In his resignation statement, he admitted making mistakes but said he was convinced the probe would clear him of any offence, adding that media attacks had wounded him and his wife.

He also drew criticism for accepting free upgrades on 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 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 also faces questions about whether he was truthful when asked if state taxpayer funds were used for a private business meeting in 2009 over a 3,400 euro ($4,400) bill for copies of a cook-book given away to all guests.

WULFF JOKES

The debate about Wulff became a staple of talk shows. One guest even pointed out there is a new German verb meaning to take something without paying for it - wulffen (to wulff it).

The president was 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 favour 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 became a hot topic on commuter trains and at the office water cooler as public opinion tipped against him. By January, only 31 percent saw him as trustworthy, down from 74 percent last August.

This week's annual carnival parades in Rhineland cities, in which politicians are traditionally lampooned, dealt the coup de grace.

One float in the city of Mainz had an effigy of Wulff with a black eye and plaster on his forehead slumped at the edge of a boxing ring. In Cologne, Wulff was dressed up as a grey rabbit on a butcher's table about to be carved up.

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