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Germany’s president resigned on Friday amid a scandal over political favors, dealing a heavy blow to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the midst of the debt crisis.
German President Christian Wulff, hand-picked by Merkel, gave a brief five-minute statement at the Bellevue presidential palace in which he said he had lost the trust of the German people, making it impossible for him to continue in a role that is meant to serve as a moral compass for the nation.
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“For this reason, it is no longer possible for me to exercise the office of president at home and abroad as required,” Wulff said. After Wulff spoke, Merkel made a brief statement saying she regretted his departure.
Merkel fought to get Wulff, an ally in her center-right Christian Democrat party, appointed as president less than two years ago. Now, in the midst of final-stage negotiations over Greece’s bailout, Merkel will be forced to undergo a potentially divisive search for a new president.
Wulff’s resignation reflects poorly upon Merkel, as she pushed for his election against a strong opposition candidate who, according to polls, was backed by most Germans. This time around, Merkel says she will talk to the opposition to find a consensus candidate.
It was a sudden move by state prosecutors in Hannover last night that prompted Wulff to resign, as they asked parliament to end Wulff’s legal immunity over accusations he had accepted favors, the first step in launching an investigation into the president.
Wulff has long been embroiled in a scandal over a home loan that he accepted when he was premier of Lower Saxony, but has until now said he would stay in office to clear his name, reiterating his desire to stay in his post in a briefing with journalists just last night.
Wulff admitted to, and apologized for, misleading the Lower Saxony state parliament about a 500,000-euro low-interest home loan he received from the wife of a wealthy businessman in October 2008. He also admitted to making a “grave mistake” when he left 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 deals.
Wulff was later criticized for accepting free upgrades for holiday flights for himself and his family, as well as staying free of charge at the holiday villas of wealthy businessmen.
When prosecutors in Hannover decided there were “enough actual indications” that Wulff had acted improperly, they asked the president of the German Bundestag — Parliament’s lower house — to lift Wulff’s immunity, a move formally required to start proceedings against him, although it does not necessarily mean that he will be charged.
“The developments of the past few days and weeks have shown that (the German people’s) trust and thus my effectiveness have been seriously damaged,” Wulff said in a brief statement. “For this reason it is no longer possible for me to exercise the office of president at home and abroad as required.”
As Germany’s political parties begin the search for Wulff’s replacement, Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union will serve as interim president. Joachim Gauck, an anti-Communist human rights activist in East Germany who ran against Wulff in 2010, is among the possible successors.
Other potential candidates include Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, and possibly Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
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