BERLIN Feb 17 To lose one president may
be considered a misfortune. To lose two within two years looks
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
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
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
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."
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.
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
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.