* Wulff says lost trust of German people
* Departure could harm Merkel, but euro impact unlikely
* Chancellor to seek consensus candidate to succeed Wulff
By Noah Barkin and Madeline Chambers
BERLIN, Feb 17 Angela Merkel's hand-picked
choice for the ceremonial post of president resigned on Friday
in a scandal over political favours, dealing a blow to the
German chancellor in the midst of the euro zone debt crisis.
In a curt five-minute statement at the Bellevue presidential
palace, Christian Wulff acknowledged that he had lost the trust
of the German people, making it impossible to continue in a role
that is meant to serve as a moral compass for the nation.
"For this reason it is no longer possible for me to exercise
the office of president at home and abroad as required," said
Wulff, standing next to his wife Bettina.
The search for a successor to Wulff could become a
distraction for Merkel at a time when her government is
embroiled in tough talks on a second bailout package for Greece,
although analysts said they expected any impact on the
negotiations to be limited.
Merkel postponed a Friday trip to Rome, where she was to
hold talks on the debt crisis with Italian Prime Minister Mario
Monti, to deal with the fallout from Wulff's departure.
She made a brief statement after his announcement, saying
she regretted his departure and would seek talks with opposition
parties to find a candidate to replace him.
The chancellor is riding a wave of popularity in Germany for
her handling of the crisis, but the departure of Wulff raises
questions about her judgement because she forced through his
appointment in 2010 over a strong opposition candidate most
He is the second president to step down in less than two
years. His predecessor, former International Monetary Fund chief
Horst Koehler, resigned unexpectedly after coming under fire for
comments he made about the German mission in Afghanistan and
failing to get strong backing from Merkel.
The resignation is likely to embolden the opposition Social
Democrats (SPD) and Greens, who have shied away from criticising
Merkel too strongly in recent months.
Despite her vow to find a consensus candidate to replace
Wulff, the choosing of a successor could prove divisive at a
fragile time for Europe. Greece needs the new aid deal to avert
a chaotic default that could push it out of the euro zone.
Berlin is playing a decisive role in shaping the package.
How much of a distraction the Wulff saga becomes depends on
how fast a successor can be agreed. A vote in the 1,244-seat
Federal Assembly must take place within a month, or by March 18.
"This won't be without consequences for Merkel, her
reputation will suffer from it," said Gerd Langguth, political
scientist at Bonn University.
Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING, said the resignation
was unlikely to have an impact Greek bailout negotiations.
"However, domestic political pressure on Angela Merkel could
increase again and will not make her life any easier," he said.
Merkel won a second term in 2009 and will not face another
federal election until the autumn of 2013. But her party faces
battles to hold onto power in the states of Saarland and
Schleswig-Holstein in regional votes due in March and May.
ONCE SEEN AS RIVAL
A member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who
served as premier of the western state of Lower Saxony, Wulff
was once seen as a potential rival to Merkel and many in Germany
saw his appointment as a ploy by the chancellor to push him out
of the political arena.
He has long cultivated a schoolboy image, but his reputation
took a hammering when the Bild newspaper reported late last year
that he had misled the state parliament about a cheap 500,000
euro ($650,000) home loan from a businessman friend before
Last month he admitted making a "grave mistake" by
threatening the editor of top-selling Bild with "war" if he
published the story about his private finance dealings.
Since then, there has been a constant stream of new
revelations that have chipped away at his credibility, leading
the German media to mock him and even invent a new verb in his
honour. "Wulffen" - or literally "to Wulff" -- means to be
evasive without telling a clear lie.
Wulff has been one of the main targets at this year's
carnival celebrations in the Rhineland where politicians are
One float in the city of Mainz has an effigy of him with a
black eye and plaster on his forehead slumped at the edge of a
boxing ring. In Cologne, where the biggest processions take
place, Wulff is dressed up as a grey rabbit on the butcher's
table about to be carved up.
On a trip to Rome earlier this week and in a briefing with a
small group of journalists on Thursday, Wulff made clear he
planned to hang onto his post.
But the situation changed dramatically in the evening when
state prosecutors in Hannover, the capital of Lower Saxony,
asked parliament to end his legal immunity over accusations he
accepted favours in a prelude to opening an investigation.
It is the first time ever that prosecutors have wanted to
investigate a German president and the move triggered direct
calls from opposition parties for the 52-year old Wulff to go.
"The office of the presidency has been damaged. Mr. Wulff's
resignation was necessary but it came too late," leaders from
the opposition Left Party said in a statement.
The leading contender to succeed him is Joachim Gauck, an
anti-Communist human rights activist in East Germany who ran
against Wulff in 2010 and embarrassed Merkel by forcing the
election in the Federal Assembly into a third round.
Wolfgang Kubicki, a senior figure in the Free Democrats
(FDP) who rule in coalition with Merkel, said many in his own
party had broken ranks and backed Gauck two years ago.
"He would be able to restore confidence in this office,"
Kubicki said, stressing the importance of securing a broad
majority in the Assembly, in which Merkel's coalition parties
hold a razor-thin majority.
Other potential candidates include Defence Minister Thomas
de Maiziere, Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Bundestag
President Norbert Lammert and possibly Finance Minister Wolfgang
Schaeuble, though shifting him to Bellevue palace would leave a
gaping hole in Merkel's cabinet in the midst of the euro zone
sovereign debt crisis.
Merkel has been criticised in the past for what has often
looked like a concerted policy of sidelining capable figures in
her party who she sees as potential rivals.
Former Hesse state premier Roland Koch abruptly resigned in
2010 after realising Merkel would never give him a cabinet job.
The chancellor sent Guenther Oettinger, former CDU state premier
in Baden-Wuerttemberg, to Brussels where he now serves as Energy
The moves have left Merkel as the undisputed leader of the
CDU, but some conservatives worry that the party has now become
overly dependent on her and lost its identity and traditional
A poll last week showed 77 percent of Germans approve of the
job Merkel is doing. Support for her conservatives has pushed up
to its top level since mid-2009, pulled higher by the popularity
of the pastor's daughter from the former East Germany.