Pressure Growing On German President Over Scandal

Published February 17, 2012 9:27AM (EST)

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel called off a trip to Italy on Friday as signs increased that President Christian Wulff will resign amid a scandal over favors he allegedly received before becoming head of state.

Merkel's office said she will make a statement at 11:30 a.m. Friday in Berlin — half an hour after Wulff himself was to make a statement at the president's Bellevue palace.

An official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Merkel called Italian Premier Mario Monti and canceled her planned trip to Rome.

On Thursday, prosecutors asked for Parliament to lift Wulff's immunity — an unprecedented move against a German president. They said there is "initial suspicion" that Wulff improperly accepted benefits from a German film producer friend — one element of a steady drip of allegations that has besieged the president over the past two months.

Wulff was Merkel's candidate for the largely ceremonial presidency in 2010, and a resignation would be embarrassing and politically awkward for her — providing a major domestic distraction as she grapples with the eurozone debt crisis.

Wulff has been embroiled in the slow-burning affair since mid-December, when it emerged that he had received a large private loan from a wealthy friend's wife in his previous job as governor of Lower Saxony state.

That was followed in January by intense criticism over a furious call he made to the editor of Germany's biggest-selling newspaper before it reported on the loan. Neither of those things, however, resulted in an investigation of Wulff.

However, prosecutors in Hannover, Lower Saxony's capital, said there is now an "initial suspicion" that Wulff improperly accepted or granted benefits in his relationship with David Groenewold, a German film producer, and requested that Wulff's immunity from prosecution be lifted so they can pursue an investigation. Those benefits allegedly included paying for a luxury hotel stay in 2007.

The prosecutors said Groenewold is also under suspicion.

Thomas Oppermann, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Social Democrats, said Wulff's position was "no longer sustainable."

"We don't need a saint in the Bellevue palace, but we do need someone who sticks to the law," he told Deutschlandfunk radio.

The primary role of Germany's president is to serve as a moral authority, and Wulff's popularity and authority already have been eroded in two months on the defensive.

Separately from Thursday's move, Wulff's longtime spokesman, Olaf Glaeseker — whom the president fired in December without explanation — is under investigation on corruption allegations in connection with the organization of business conferences.

If Wulff resigns, the speaker of the upper house of Parliament — a rotating post currently held by Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, a member of Merkel's conservative bloc — would take over the presidential duties. On a day-to-day basis, those consist largely of signing legislation into law.

A special parliamentary assembly made up of lower-house lawmakers and representatives of Germany's 16 states would have to elect a successor within 30 days.

Merkel's center-right coalition, which is prone to infighting, would have only a wafer-thin majority, meaning she might have to seek a consensus candidate with the opposition.

Wulff was a deputy leader of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union before he became president. He replaced Horst Koehler, another Merkel nominee for the presidency, in mid-2010 after Koehler unexpectedly resigned — citing criticism over comments he made about the German military.


David Rising contributed to this story.

By Salon Staff

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