BERLIN — The last thing Angela Merkel must need at the moment is the political crisis that has engulfed Berlin over the past 24 hours.
The resignation of Germany’s president is an unwanted distraction as the euro zone battles to save Greece from default.
Christian Wulff finally fell on his sword on Friday, putting an end to a two-month long scandal that had severely damaged his credibility. After prosecutors requested that parliament lift his immunity so that they could probe allegations of possible corruption, his position was no longer tenable.
Announcing his departure on Friday in Berlin, 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,” Wulff said in a brief statement at his Bellevue palace residence. "I have made mistakes, but I was always honest," he added.
Now Merkel has to scramble to find another president, while also dealing with the ongoing European debt crisis. It is just a few days until euro zone finance ministers gather on Monday to decide once and for all on the Greek bailout.
She was forced to cancel a trip to Rome on Friday where she was to meet with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti as it became clear Wulff had to go. She later held a teleconference with both Monti and Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos.
The German constitution stipulates that a new president must be found within 30 days, and Merkel only has a tiny majority in the special parliamentary assembly made up of lower-house lawmakers and representatives of Germany's 16 states that will vote on Wulff’s successor.
Apart from the immediate headache of finding a replacement, the resignation is a blow politically for Merkel. Wulff was, after all, her preferred candidate in 2010, when the previous incumbent Horst Koehler suddenly stepped down after remarks he made about Germany’s military operations.
She insisted on nominating Wulff, then governor of Lower Saxony and a deputy leader of her conservative Christian Democrats, rejecting calls to support the opposition candidate Joachim Gauck, a former East German human-rights activist. The election almost turned into a debacle. Wulff needed three rounds to be elected as a number of members of Merkel’s coalition backed Gauck.
After that, the seemingly bland Wulff kept a relatively low profile, only causing a brief stir when he stated that Islam was an integral part of Germany in a speech.
But that all changed when the news broke in mid-December that while still governor of Lower Saxony, he had accepted a 500,000 euro ($659,000) loan at a cheap interest rate from the wife of businessman Egon Geerkens. The loan itself was not illegal, but he was criticized for subsequently denying having any business ties with Geerkens.
The scandal rumbled on once it emerged that Wulff had called up the editor-in-chief of Bild, Germany’s powerful tabloid, demanding that he kill the story.
Although Wulff subsequently apologized, the drip-drip of new revelations had turned him into a laughingstock.
Every other day, it seemed, a new story appeared about the Wulffs, from their propensity for accepting free holidays from rich people to allegations of cheap car- lease deals. Many critics said the office of the presidency was being irreparably damaged, and calls continued for him to step down.
Wulff was also damaged by the investigation into his former spokesman, Olaf Glaeseker — whom he fired in December — on corruption allegations in connection with the organization of business conferences.
However, it was the relationship with the film producer David Groenewold that finally proved Wulff’s comeuppance. Prosecutors in Hannover had been looking into whether Wulff had improperly accepted gifts from Groenewold. It was when prosecutors took the unprecedented move of calling on parliament to lift his immunity, Wulff finally faced the music.
Up to now his disastrous presidency has not dented her continuing popularity, yet Merkel’s insistence on forcing Wulff upon the nation has called her judgment into question. And she will now have to find someone whose past is whiter than white for an office that may be ceremonial but also has moral authority.
On Friday she said that this time she will consult with the opposition Social Democrats and Greens to find a consensus candidate.