German President Christian Wulff has resigned in a scandal over favours he allegedly received before becoming head of state, creating another political problem for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Wulff made the announcement yesterday, just hours after the slow-burning affair escalated dramatically with a request by prosecutors for Parliament to lift his immunity from prosecution.
He is stepping down after less than two years in the job. He was Merkel’s candidate for the presidency in 2010.
His resignation is potentially awkward for her – providing a major domestic distraction as she grapples with the eurozone debt crisis – because a successor must be elected by a special parliamentary assembly within 30 days.
Prosecutors said there is “initial suspicion” that Wulff improperly accepted benefits from a German film producer friend.
Wulff said Germany needs “a president who is supported by the confidence not just of a majority of citizens, but a wide majority”.
“The developments of recent days and months have shown that this confidence, and therefore my ability to act, have been lastingly impaired,” a sombre Wulff said in a brief statement to reporters at the president’s Bellevue palace, with his wife, Bettina, at his side.
Before becoming president, Wulff was a deputy leader of Merkel’s conservative party and the governor of Lower Saxony state.
The speaker of the upper house of Parliament – Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, a member of Merkel’s conservative bloc – took over presidential duties temporarily.
The special assembly will comprise lower-house MPs and representatives of Germany’s 16 states
Merkel’s centre-right coalition, which is prone to infighting, has only a wafer-thin majority there – so she may seek a consensus candidate with the opposition.
The primary role of Germany’s president is to serve as a moral authority, and Wulff’s popularity and authority already had been eroded before prosecutors in Hannover, Lower Saxony’s capital, made their move. They asked for Parliament to lift Wulff’s immunity – an unprecedented move against a German president – over the suspicions.
The slow-burning affair began in mid-December, when it emerged that Wulff had received a large private loan from a wealthy businessman friend’s wife in his previous job as state governor.
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 the loan. Neither of those, however, resulted in an investigation of Wulff.
But prosecutors are now looking into whether 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.
Wulff said he was convinced he would be fully cleared. He added: “I have always behaved legally correctly in the offices I held. “I have made mistakes, but I was always honest.”
Wulff is the second Merkel presidential nominee to quit early. He replaced Horst Koehler in mid-2010 after Koehler unexpectedly resigned a year into his second term, citing criticism over comments he made about the German military.