President’s Loan Scandal Adds Pressure on Merkel
Just as Germany finds itself cast with the leading role in shepherding Europe out of economic crisis, the country’s top leadership appears to be faltering.
As the New Year has dawned, the well-publicized hesitations of Chancellor Angela Merkel over market remedies for the euro have paled — at least for now — against the furor eating at the moral authority of the German president, Christian Wulff.
Mrs. Merkel’s handpicked choice for the office in 2010 — after his predecessor suddenly resigned — Mr. Wulff, as the largely ceremonial head of state, is expected in tough times to provide Germans with a sense of orientation.
Indignation first erupted in mid-December over reports of a questionable private loan of €500,000, or $650,000, that Mr. Wulff took out while still premier of the state of Lower Saxony. The fuss had just begun to subside when outrage boiled afresh this week; Bild, Germany’s mass-circulation daily tabloid, confirmed leaked details of a menacing phone call from Mr. Wulff to its editor to try to prevent articles on the loan affair from going to press.
Mrs. Merkel three times reiterated her full trust in Mr. Wulff, at 52 the youngest head of the modern German state, over his handling of the credit affair. But she has not yet commented on the phone calls to Bild’s editor, Kai Diekmann, and to the chief executive of its parent company, Axel Springer. Neither has the president, whose office on Monday issued a terse statement reiterating his support for press freedom but declining to discuss private conversations.
As Mrs. Merkel and other European leaders grapple for a way out of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, and as she battles with a murky affair involving far-right extremists, and a weak partner in coalition government at home, she can ill afford to lose another president.
“Mrs. Merkel will do everything possible to prevent Mr. Wulff from stepping down,” said Gerd Langguth, a professor of political studies at Bonn University.
But faced with the headlines in the country’s daily newspapers on Tuesday — “Bumbling,” “The Messed Up President,” and “Niveau Berlusconi” — the chancellor could find the task of saving her president as challenging as securing parliamentary agreement to a fresh euro zone bailout package.
Exposed to open (and amusing) mockery of editorial writers, Mr. Wulff and, less directly, Mrs. Merkel are under increasing attack.
“After everything we have learned about Christian Wulff’s approach to his friends, his finances, to truth and to the press, the office of the president is harmed,” Daniel Brössler wrote in an editorial in Süddeutsche Zeitung. That was Mr. Wulff’s fault, he added, “but not his alone.” Because she chose him, “Angela Merkel must also be called to account.”
Mr. Wulff’s four-minute statement on the loan scandal three days before Christmas was considered grudging and too vague. Calls increased on Tuesday from the news media — particularly outraged at the attack on freedom of speech and press, pillars of Germany’s postwar democracy — and from opposition parties for Mr. Wulff to explain himself. The leading opposition Social Democratic Party urged Mrs. Merkel to provide answers.
“Mrs. Merkel must now explain whether she sees Mr. Wulff as living up to her expectations of how to carry out his role in office,” Hubertus Heil, the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, told Die Welt. “After all, she put him forward for this office.”