Controversy over president threatens to engulf Merkel

CHANCELLOR Angela Merkel returns from a two-week break to the front line of the debt crisis amid a clamour over the conduct of Germany’s president that threatens to damage her own standing and detract from her efforts to defend the euro.

Merkel, whose last official engagement was on December 20, will resume her duties in two days with the spotlight on President Christian Wulff over a loan from a friend’s wife to buy a house and vacations at the homes of business people.

Scrutiny of the mainly ceremonial president intensified after Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper, said that the president had attempted to stop the editor from publishing the loan story last month.

“The president is Merkel’s creation and if he’s forced to leave in such an ignominious way it would weaken her,” Jan Techau, director of the Brussels-based European centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said by phone. “Merkel was able to push through Wulff’s election without taking much account of opposing voices. If she has to pick a new president, it will become a real test of her power.”

The accusations aimed at Wulff have “damaged him and his office,” Handelsblatt newspaper said yesterday, under the headline “the shrunken president.” His remaining in the post “is in doubt.” Wulff has rejected any impropriety.

The accusations surrounding Wulff are a distraction for Merkel, as she pushes for a blueprint on closer fiscal ties in Europe by the end of March to combat the crisis that has driven the euro to record lows against the yen. She is due to host French President Nicolas Sarkozy on January 9 for talks in Berlin, with the threat of a credit-rating downgrade still hanging over the euro area.

Merkel, in her New Year’s address, pledged to defend the euro and warned of hard times to come without signalling any additional measures to combat the crisis that the Munich-based Ifo economic institute forecast will cause economic growth to plunge to 0.4% this year from an estimated 2.9% in 2011. She and Sarkozy will prepare for “upcoming European appointments,” including a January 30 European summit, the government said.

Merkel hasn’t addressed Wulff’s travails since she said before her Christmas vacation departure last month that he had her “full confidence.”

Wulff, 52, a former deputy leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, was picked by the chancellor to replace the previous incumbent, Horst Koehler, after Koehler’s surprise resignation in May 2010. Wulff was elected by a special national assembly on June 30 of that year only after the third attempt.

The chancellor’s majority in the assembly has since narrowed to as few as two seats from 21 seats, after regional election defeats throughout 2011 that she and other party officials blamed on the debt crisis, according to electoral website wahlrecht.de.

Wulff’s 18 months in office were largely confined to representing Germany overseas until Bild reported on December 13 that he negotiated a €500,000 loan from the wife of Egon Geerkens, a businessman friend, to pay for a new home when he was Lower Saxony state premier. Wulff later apologised for failing to reveal the loan, which he said he paid back before his election to the presidency. “At no time in public office did I give anyone an improper advantage,” Wulff said on December 22.

Handelsblatt said that by so far refusing to come to Wulff’s rescue again, Merkel is adopting a “dangerous silence” that could backfire.


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