January 3, 2012 8:13 pm

Claims over president threaten to engulf Merkel

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Outspoken public criticism of the behaviour of Christian Wulff, the senior German politician who holds the largely ceremonial job of state president, is threatening to embroil Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in a damaging political scandal that would undermine her own domestic political standing.

New allegations that Mr Wulff sought to suppress embarrassing newspaper stories about himself and his family since he was elected president in 2010 have caused unprecedented criticism of his fitness to hold the office.

The attacks on the president could not come at a more difficult time for Ms Merkel, who is seeking to focus all her attention on coping with the financial crisis in the eurozone.

Mr Wulff is facing a growing number of calls for him to quit the job, in which he has little direct political power but considerable moral influence, after he admitted accepting a €500,000 loan from the wife of a wealthy businessman to buy a new home in 2008, when he was the Christian Democrat prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony.

The affair, which first came to light in mid-December in a story in the mass-circulation Bild newspaper, broke out again this week when it emerged that Mr Wulff had threatened the newspaper’s editor with “war” if he published the story.

The newspaper said on Tuesday that the state president had been “outraged” by its investigation but had rung Kai Diekmann, the editor, two days later to apologise for leaving an intemperate message on the journalist’s voicemail.

Within hours on Tuesday, a second newspaper editor – Jan-Eric Peters, of the conservative daily Die Welt, also owned by the powerful Axel Springer media group – revealed to Spiegel-online, internet version of the weekly magazine, that Mr Wulff had made several phone calls to reporters and editors last June in an effort to prevent publication of another story about his family.

A leading opposition politician, Thomas Oppermann, chief whip in the German parliament for the Social Democratic party, said on Tuesday that “the political grace period” was over for the president.

“No German president is above the law,” he said. “That applies to press freedom too. It is absolutely inappropriate if the president is trying to stop free reporting.”

There has been no comment so far from Ms Merkel, who chose Mr Wulff as the presidential candidate of her Christian Democratic Union last year after the surprise resignation from the job of Horst Köhler, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

She was sharply criticised at the time for choosing a party politician to run, rather than an independent figure such as Joachim Gauck, the former East German clergyman and human rights campaigner proposed by the SPD. In the event, Mr Wulff only won in the third round of voting after more than 40 nominal government supporters had abstained or voted against him.

Although the only open calls for the president’s resignation have come from mid-ranking politicians and newspapers, the very silence from Ms Merkel and leading members of the CDU suggests that his behaviour has become an embarrassment.

“This is not the behaviour I expect of a president,” said Holger Zastrow, deputy chairman of the Free Democrats, junior partners in Ms Merkel’s centre-right coalition. Mr Wulff had “a duty to explain himself”, he added.

If the president were forced to resign, it would be widely seen as the second time the chancellor had backed the wrong man for the job. She would almost certainly be forced to find a compromise candidate with the opposition, because her centre-right majority in the federal assembly that must elect a president has shrunk to just four votes.

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