Reply Sat 18 Feb, 2012 04:33 pm
Friday 17 February 2012
The German president, Christian Wulff, has resigned after being caught up in a corruption scandal involving a dubious loan, an apparent attempt to block a report in a German tabloid and a string of apparently undeclared freebies.

Wulff, who had served as the head of state since 2010, stepped down on Friday after prosecutors said they had asked the German parliament to lift his immunity.

They said they had "factual indications" of Wulff's long-suspected improper ties to business executives.

The chancellor, Angela Merkel, cancelled a trip to visit the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, in order to deal with the fallout.

Wulff, a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, had been her personal choice for president. His departure is an unwelcome distraction for the chancellor as she tries to control the spiralling debt crisis that threatens to tear Europe apart.

Germany's president has very little power, but the primary role of the largely ceremonial position is to serve as a moral authority, which is why Wulff had to go.

Giving his resignation speech from his official Berlin residence, Bellvue palace, he insisted he had "always acted correctly according to the law" but conceded that he had made mistakes.

He had lost the trust of the German people, he said, and had become a distraction from the issues of the day.

"Our land needs a president who can dedicate himself to national and international challenges," he added.

Merkel expressed her "personal deep regret" at Wulff's departure, in a statement delivered at the chancellery in Berlin.

"During his time in office, Christian Wulff was a energetic champion for creating a modern, open Germany," she said. "He gave us important reminders that the strength of our country lies in its diversity. This notion will remain linked with his name. He and his wife, Bettina, have served this country, the Federal Republic of Germany, with dignity."

She said Wulff's decision to step down ahead of a possible criminal investigation showed the strength of the German legal system – "that everyone is treated equally".

The chancellor said she hoped to begin talks with the opposition Social Democratic (SPD) party, as well as the Greens, to agree on a candidate to replace Wulff.

The 52-year-old Wulff has been embroiled in the slow-burning scandal since mid-December, when it emerged that he had received a large private loan from a wealthy friend's wife during his previous job as the governor of Lower Saxony.

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

Prosecutors in Hannover, Lower Saxony's capital, said on Thursday there was now an "initial suspicion" that Wulff had improperly accepted or granted benefits in his relationship with David Groenewold, a film producer, and requested that Wulff's immunity from prosecution be lifted so they could pursue an investigation – an unprecedented move against a German president.

In a statement, they said Groenewold was also under suspicion.

Wulff has faced allegations that Groenewold, whose firm was granted a loan guarantee by Lower Saxony's government, paid for him and his wife to stay at a luxury hotel on the German resort island of Sylt in 2007.

His resignation is awkward for Merkel. Her centre-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.

A special parliamentary assembly would have to elect a successor within 30 days.

While an initial suspicion of wrongdoing often does not lead to charges in Germany, the prosecutors' decision is a blow to Wulff, whose popularity and authority have been eroded during two months on the defensive.

Separately, Wulff's longtime spokesman, Olaf Glaeseker – whom he fired in December without explanation – is under investigation on corruption allegations in connection with the organisation of business conferences.

Earlier, Andrea Nahles, the general secretary of the Social Democrats, said her party would vote to lift Wulff's immunity and indicated that he should go.

"It has never happened before that German prosecutors consider it necessary to investigate a head of state," Nahles said. "From my point of view, investigations by prosecutors are not compatible with the office of president."

Wulff has drawn criticism for his handling of the affair, during which he has said little and often communicated through his lawyers.

He has said the call to the newspaper editor was a serious mistake, but has argued publicly with the publication over whether or not he was trying to block its report.

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 attracted by comments he had made about the German military.
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Pamela Rosa
Reply Mon 20 Feb, 2012 02:35 am

Joachim Gauck, a former anti-Communist human rights activist in East Germany who is set to become the next German president, is a moral authority to be reckoned with.

Gauck, who has been called Germany's answer to Nelson Mandela, was one of a number of Protestant pastors who helped bring down the communist East German regime, setting the stage for the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification in 1990.

The 72-year old, who is married and has four children, ran the state-run archives on the Stasi after reunification and earned recognition for exposing the crimes of the dreaded East German secret police.

Even after his retirement in 2000, the author of many books continued his campaign for human rights. His new book, "Freedom -- A plea," hits stores nationwide on Monday.

Perhaps Gauck's very moral gravitas is one reason Chancellor Angela Merkel passed over him in 2010 for the presidency, before being pressured into nominating him on Sunday - he is a formidable rival for Germans' affections.

Already two years ago and despite Merkel's opposition, he was the public's firm favourite for the presidency.

Media across the political divide backed him, with mass-selling daily Bild running a picture of him on its front page next to the headline "Yes we Gauck" -- a twist on the U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign slogan "Yes we can."

Gauck also presents a stark contrast to outgoing President Christiaan Wulff, a regional career politician who resigned on Friday in a scandal over political and financial favours.

Some 20 years older than Wulff, he is more the elderly statesman and is not affiliated to any political party, describing himself as "a left-leaning, liberal conservative."

Indeed, before becoming the left-wing opposition's presidential candidate in 2010, he had declined an offer from the conservatives to become president in 1990.

Supporters say the fact he is above party politics makes him the ideal candidate for the largely ceremonial but influential role of president.


Gauck has always struck an independent tone. Born in 1940 in the north eastern city of Rostock, he says he already knew socialism was an "unjust state" aged nine.

When he was just 11, his father was arrested by communist authorities and sent to a Siberian gulag.

The young Gauck wanted to become a journalist, but his career plans were thwarted because he refused to join communist youth associations. Instead he studied theology.

In 1965, he became a Protestant pastor, using the pulpit to preach on human rights.

He went on to become one of the founders of the New Forum, a civil rights movement formed in 1989 in the months leading up to the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

"Let's not forget that it was churchmen like Joachim Gauck who helped bring about East Germany's peaceful revolution," Merkel, herself the daughter of a Protestant pastor who grew up in the failed GDR, told a news conference on Sunday.

On the last day of the GDR's existence, Gauck became the commissioner to oversee the Stasi archives.

He ensured that the sprawling files were used to root out former Stasi employees and collaborators in public service and to understand the country's past. His commission was unofficially known as the "Gauck authority."

More recently, he has had to defend his decision to keep former Stasi employees working at the archives, workers whose insider knowledge of the Stasi made them, he thought, "indispensable."

Gauck, who appeared alongside Merkel on Sunday, himself warned he was neither a "superman" nor a "man without errors."

The activist, who said he had just rushed into the capital city and had not even taken a wash before heading into the press conference, seemed genuinely overwhelmed, saying he was "a little confused" but was bound to feel happy later on.
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