The affair surrounding German President Christian Wulff erupted into a full-fledged national scandal on Thursday night with the announcement by the public prosecutor's office in Lower Saxony that it had applied to lift the head of state's immunity as part of its investigation into allegations that he accepted gifts or advantages while in office as governor in the state.
On Thursday night, prosecutors in Hanover announced that they had submitted a request to the federal parliament, the Bundestag, seeking the lifting of Wulff's immunity from prosecution. This is the first time in German history that such an unprecedented request has been made in relation to the head of state, and it is the first time an acting president will have to undergo such legal proceedings.
Wulff has been under fire in recent weeks over a €500,000 ($655,850) personal loan he took at favorable interest rates to buy a home when he was governor. But prosecutors are more interested in Wulff's friendship with filmmaker David Groenewold, whom they believe may have treated the former governor to a vacation on the German holiday island of Sylt.
A film company, of which Groenewold's own production company was the majority shareholder, received a credit guarantee from the state of Lower Saxony in 2006. Only a few months later, Wulff took a vacation together with the glamorous businessman on Sylt, a German playground for the rich and famous, and Groenewold paid the hotel bill. Wulff claims that his friend only advanced the money and that he paid him back later, in cash. Prosecutors are also investigating Groenewold for granting advantages to a public official.
The new dimension of the scandal raises the question of whether Wulff can remain in office despite the criminal investigations.
"The presumption of innocence, even after the affirmation of the initial suspicions, is self-evident," prosecutors said in a statement. They also noted that it was their mandate to also "ascertain any exonerating circumstances". If Wulff remains in office now, he could certainly invoke that. He could point out the principles of the rule of law and pledge to support all matters concerning the legal proceedings in the hope that the case will eventually be dropped. On Thursday night, the Office of the President didn't release any statements, but it announced on Friday morning that Wulff would make a statement at 11 a.m. Responding to the developments, Chancellor Angela Merkel cancelled a planned trip to Italy where she was expected to meet with Prime Minister Mario Monti. Instead, she will remain in Berlin and provide a statement 30 minutes after Wulff's.
The political pressure on the president continues to grow. Whatever happens, the decision to step down from office probably doesn't rest in Wulff's hands alone. Calls from the opposition for him to leave office are the least of his problems. Much more crucial is the issue of how long he will enjoy the support of the ruling coalition made up of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP).
In any case, only a handful of coalition members have been actively defending Wulff in recent weeks. And after investigators made their announcement Thursday evening, most of these have kept their heads down. Rather, coalition politicians said there was now a "new, difficult situation," but that they preferred to not say anything before the president had a chance to make a public statement.
Despite the coalition's majority in parliament, it will not be possible for it to stand in the way of efforts to lift the immunity Wulff currently enjoys as president. Since the president does not fall under the general freedom from legal investigation that is afforded to parliamentarians at the beginning of each legislative period, all members of parliament will have a say in deciding on Wulff's immunity. In recent days, the Bundestag's Committee for the Scrutiny of Elections, Immunity and the Rules of Procedure already checked to make sure that was the case.
In formal terms, the process would look like this: Prosecutors would submit a petition to the Bundestag president, who would then convey it to the Immunity Committee. The 13-member committee, chaired by CDU parliamentarian Thomas Strobl, would then submit its recommended decision to the Bundestag, which would then vote on whether to approve the recommendation. For the moment, it is unclear whether this would first happen during the next plenary session of parliament, scheduled to begin on Feb. 27.
Lifting Wulff's immunity is the precondition for allowing prosecutors to really begin investigations, meaning to question witnesses, requisition documents and search offices. For the moment, such activities are not permitted, and investigators are limited to what they can learn from watching television, reading newspapers and scrutinizing other sources in the public domain.
In recent weeks, the Hanover public prosecutors were the subject of repeated criticism. Prominent experts on criminal and constitutional law accused them of being overly cautious. Any normal citizen, so the argument went, would long have faced legal proceedings over suspicion of having received gifts or advantages, or even the more serious charge of corruption.
But the four prosecutors in the city's corruption department had good reason for not petitioning to have Wulff's immunity lifted, despite the more than 100 criminal charges against Wulff filed by private individuals. The case does not involve some mid-ranking public official in a provincial town who is accused of receiving bribes. The person at its center is the German president. The reputation of Germany's highest office is at stake, not to mention Wulff's political career. If all the accusations had come to nothing in the end, the prosecutors would have received even more criticism over the damage that had been wrought for nothing.
That consideration made the decision to try to get Wulff's immunity lifted even more difficult. It was not a step that investigators have taken lightly. They have examined the initial suspicion in depth, and they have examined all the arguments. And now they have come to the conclusion that they can no longer justify doing nothing. In the Thursday evening statement, prosecutors said that, "following the extensive examination of new documents and the evaluation of other media reports," they now feel there is "sufficient factual evidence" to justify an initial suspicion. And just to be on the safe side, the investigators also emphasized that they had made their decision "independently after intensive consultation with colleagues." There had not been any "orders from higher authorities," they said.
It is unclear whether the Hanover corruption investigators have access to more information than the -- not inconsiderable -- details that are already in the public domain. In any case, they will have to prove that Wulff's friend Groenewold did not merely advance the payment for the joint vacation on Sylt. They will have to refute Wulff's statement that he paid the money back to the film producer in cash. And they will have to establish a connection to the €4 million guarantee that the state of Lower Saxony had granted a few months previously to a film company in which Groenewold's production company had a majority stake.
If the investigators are able to confirm their initial suspicion and prove that Wulff accepted gifts or advantages, the politician could face up to three years in prison or a fine. It is unclear what kind of financial remuneration Wulff would receive following a possible resignation. Experts are divided over whether he would be eligible for the honorarium of €199,000 per year that an ex-president would normally receive, as the resignation would not be for "political reasons." In the end, the German government would probably have to decide.