The institution of the German federal presidency is once again under scrutiny. Only twenty months since the last German president, Horst Köhler, resigned due to comments about Germany’s military involvement overseas, Christian Wulff has become embroiled in a scandal involving his attempt to prevent Germany’s leading tabloid newspaper, Bild, publishing details of a private €500,000 loan from the wife of a wealthy businessman. Wulff was Minister-President of Lower Saxony at the time.
Wulff’s attempt to prevent Bild from publishing the story resulted in the President leaving a message on the answer machine of Bild’s editor, apparently threatening consequences if the story was published. The scandal raises questions about Wulff’s financial dealings and, more seriously, appears to suggest that the federal president sought to restrict the freedom of the press to report the story. (The BBC has a brief outline of the events http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16428941; see also Der Spiegel Online http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,807551,00.html ).
The Federal President is a largely ceremonial figurehead in Germany. Whilst not generally meddling in day-to-day politics, the president can, nonetheless, often reflect the tone of German society. Yet recent presidents Köhler and Wulff have run in to significant trouble, reflecting badly on the institution they represent. With opinion polls in Germany running at almost 50% demanding Wulff resigns, an almighty party political debate has erupted concerning what should be done, and whether Wulff’s position remains tenable. Wulff has sought to ride out the storm but the German press remains unconvinced by both his side of the story and his ability to recover from recent events.
Angela Merkel did little to try and support Horst Köhler when he decided to resign in May 2010. Köhler’s resignation was a strange one for observers outside of Germany. During a trip to Afghanistan in 2010 Köhler stated that German troops were there to defend the national economic interest. In a country which remains sensitive about overseas military involvement this was viewed in some quarters as being unacceptable. In perhaps an overreaction to the criticism Köhler resigned causing an acting president to be appointed, Jens Böhrnsen (the reason for his appointment was that according to article 57 German constitution, the President of the Bundesrat is automatically installed whilst the search for a new president is underway). Köhler then came under criticism for bring his office into disrepute by resigning so easily.
In the case of Christian Wulff, the criticism of his financial dealings and his perceived failure to explain his actions has resulted in more sustained criticism than Köhler faced. As a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party, there is obviously political opportunity here for Germany’s opposition parties. Wulff remains committed to staying in his post. But without a greater effort to explain what happened, question marks will remain over the presidency for the foreseeable future.