German presidential quitting roils Merkel's waters

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German presidential quitting roils Merkel's waters

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It is a largely ceremonial position, President of Germany, with moral authority wrapped up in it. Chancellor Angela Merkel vouchsafed that Christian Wulff was morally upstanding when she managed to have him elected to the job in 2010. It wasn’t easy.

He was Merkel’s protege, but it took three rounds of voting in the parliament. Nine hours was a record. The former Prime Minister of the state of Lower Saxony was an ally in her centre-right Christian Democrat party.

He was the country’s youngest-ever head of state, then 51. A practising Catholic, twice-married, his path of troublesome public and media criticism lay ahead… that he had accepted free holidays from rich contacts, discounts on purchases, free upgrades.

The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was a house, bought with a preferential interest rate.

He got the loan from a businessman’s wife, and when asked about his dealings he dodged the question – none with the husband, he said; did not mention her.

But what really stoked the scandal was his trying to hush the story up with the chief editor of Bild newspaper.

The thing had started smoking in December but Wulff clung to office, refuting the allegations he had acted improperly. When he ended this week by quitting at last, his less-than-two-year presidency had been Germany’s shortest ever, and Merkel accepted his resignation with regret, she said.

Merkel’s poll ratings are still robust, but finding a suitable new moral compass for the nation is seen as very distracting when she has the euro zone crisis and Greek difficulties to handle.

While some say this is unlikely to have much impact on that, others say Merkel’s reputation will suffer.

The resignation is likely to fire up her domestic opposition, the SPD and Greens. They have left her relatively in peace, recently.

euronews spoke with the Berlin correspondent for ZDF television, Frank Buchwald.

Stefan Grobe asked: Wulff’s resignation came surprisingly quickly – even if it wasn’t unexpected. How do you see things now? Who will be damaged by this?”

Frank Buchwald: The political damage will firstly be felt by Christian Wulff himself. Next will be the coalition, because they were the ones who actually elected Wulff as president. So it’s clear the political consequences will fall on the governing coalition.

euronews: Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been preoccupied with European politics, as the crisis in Greece has practically become domestic politics in Germany. How much has the euro crisis weakened her?

Buchwald: Well, she has quite a lot to do here in Berlin, because she has to put a new president in charge in a quite short space of time; the constitution says less than 30 days. And obviously she has bigger problems coming from Europe, in particular Greece, which is very complicated to manage inside her coalition. This makes one more problem for Merkel in an already complicated situation. The president in Germany has a constitutional role, which doesn’t give him any real power. It’s a question of speeches, which are usually made by the President, and about confidence. So, as the efforts to save the euro and the aid to Greece questions are debated here in Germany, a President who’s more critical of the Chancellor could pose more problems for Merkel.

euronews: After Horst Köhler, Wulff is the second German head of state to resign. What does this tell us about the political culture in Germany?

Buchwald: It has become harder here in Berlin for the president as well. In the German constitution the president is like a substitute for a king. He stands above the parties. That’s what the constitution says. But unlike in the past, he is being targeted and watched by the media more closely.”

euronews: Now, it might be very hard for Merkel to push through a conservative candidate as a successor to Wulff. Is that a sign for political change in Berlin in 2013?

Buchwald: It’s being thought of as something of an indicator in Germany – that a presidential election by the parliament is always a kind of preliminary decision about who gets to govern the country, which coalition will come together. It is an old theory that’s never been proven, but naturally the balance of power in the federal assembly, which elects the president, says a lot about who might have the upper hand in the future.