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The German President Resigns

Analysis on the scandal which led to the resignation of German President Christian Wulff, and how this reflects on the accountability of public officials in Germany.

On Feb 17thGerman President Christian Wulff announced his resignation as a result of a media campaign against him. This has shaken the German political establishment. Instead of each party fielding its own candidate for the presidential election, the parties met together to find a suitable replacement. Even by the consensual standards in German politics, this was a unique event.

The “Causa Wulff” began with the publication of accusations that Mr. Wulff had taken a loan from Egon Geerkens and that this loan had been on unusually favorable terms. These accusations were first made in Germany’s largest newspaper, “Bild”, which gave details of the loan made by Mr. Geerkens, a friend of Mr. Wulff who happens to be an entrepreneur. Unknown to the public, these accusations were made earlier in the State Parliament of Niedersachsen, because the loan contravened a state law that prohibits members of the state government from accepting gifts over the value of €10. Mr. Wulff, who was then prime minister of Niedersachsen, denied them. It turns out that after his denial, he returned the money to Mr. Geerkens and took a loan from the Stuttgart-based BW-Bank.

Perhaps even more importantly, when the accusations were about to be published, Wulff left a phone message for the Chief Editor of “Bild”, threatening a "definitive break" with the Springer publishing group, publishers of the ‘Bild”, a day before the release of the article. This was not quite the right move because, as president, his primary duties included the protection of the freedom of the press. On Jan 4thWulff conceded that he had made a mistake in an interview with ARD and ZDF (both German broadcasting companies). Even so, he insisted that he intended to remain in office, declaring that neither in office, nor before, had he ever violated any law. He did admit that the call to the Chief Editor was a "serious error” he was sorry about.

Following these events, further allegations began to surface. One involved the financing of Mr. Wulff’s election campaign during the 2007 elections in Niedersachsen by the founder of AWD, Carsten Maschmeyer. Another involved Mr. Wulff getting his family holidays funded by wealthy friends. Perhaps the last straw on the camel’s back was the accusation that the costs of his holiday in Sylt were borne by the entrepreneur, David Groenewold, a film producer and a friend of Mr. Wulff’s. Coincidentally, Niedersachsen gave a subsidy to the music business, which ended up profiting Mr. Groenewold personally.

Like any good thriller, there were yet more twists to the plot. There have long been rumors about Mr. Wulff’s wife, Bettina Wulff, being involved with an escort service. German bloggers have been making her past life an issue for over a year. The scandal involving Mr. Wulff was destroying the credibility of the political class and damaging the reputation of the office of German President. In a republic, the President represents the highest political authority and is expected to set standards, both political and moral. Mr. Wulff clearly failed to do so. In fact, the prosecutor's office in Hannover started investigating Mr. Wulff’s actions on Feb 16thand requested that his presidential immunity be lifted. This clearly made Mr. Wulff’s position as President untenable.

The campaign against Mr. Wulff was unprecedented in German history. It is therefore important to examine it closely. In any democracy, stakeholders in society have the opportunity to influence public figures. Those with money and resources have more power to influence those in the public arena like politicians and even journalists.

The back-story

Mr. Wulff erred in more ways than one and his actions clearly led to his downfall. Yet it seems that some powerful actors had a role in instigating his chute. When Porsche tried to take over Volkswagen (VW), Mr. Wulff, as Prime Minister of Niedersachsen, was on the VW supervisory board. He knew of Porsche’s bid but held back key information from VW. The value of VW crashed and shareholders lost money. Consequently around 70 banks, insurance companies and funds filed for damages totaling €1.8bn. A large number of people with considerable capital were upset at Mr. Wulff. This probably led to the leaking of sensitive information about his previous actions to the media, bringing him under public scrutiny. It is important to note that the scandal surrounding Mr. Wulff was not triggered by a media investigation but by leaks made to the media.

By German political standards, Mr. Wulff’s actions are not entirely unusual. Politicians often have cozy relationships with wealthy supporters and enjoy positions of power in supervisory boards of companies. This often does not attract public attention. Even the current scandal that has led to Mr. Wulff’s resignation has barely made it to the headlines of the international press. In Germany, the scandal surrounding Mr. Wulff led to the national media campaign. However, this campaign did not focus on the flaws in the German political system and the reforms required. It was fixated instead on blow-by-blow events surrounding the scandal. The public discourse is yet to engage with the fundamental issue about making elected representatives more accountable.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.