German President Christian Wulff is starting to wobble again. The controversy over his private loan arrangements has been compounded this week by revelations that he tried to stop the mass-circulation Bild newspaper from publishing a damaging article by calling its editor and chief and the head of the Springer publishing company, which owns Bild.
The calls made on Dec. 12 came to light last weekend, and critics have said they make a mockery of the president's insistence last month that he respects press freedom. The Bild story that he had received a €500,000 loan from the wife of entrepreneur Egon Geerkens while he was still governor of Lower Saxony, and had concealed that fact in a response to a parliamentary question in February 2010 about whether he had business ties with Geerkens, was true. But Wulff used his authority as German head of state to try to suppress it.
New Press Threat Allegation
The pressure grew on Tuesday when the daily Die Welt reported that Wulff had also intervened to try and stop its sister paper Welt am Sonntag, from publishing an article last summer. He summoned one of the authors to Bellevue Palace, his official office, and threatened him with "unpleasant and public consequences" if the article was published, Die Welt wrote. The newspaper did not indicate what the contents of the article had been, but said it went ahead and published it. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, the article was about Wulff's family, difficult childhood and an estranged step-sister, and was published at the end of June.
Before Christmas, when Wulff apologized for not having been "straight" regarding his private loan, it looked as though he would be able to stay in office despite heavy criticism from opposition politicians from the media. But now, his position is looking increasingly uncertain because he has started to lose public backing from his political allies in Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union.
In the last two days, the silence of his allies has been deafening. Leading members have refrained from making any public comment about the reports that he effectively tried to censor negative media coverage about him.
Support also seems to be dwindling among CDU members in his home region of Lower Saxony, as well. "Many party members rang me up. All have made negative comments about Wulff's behavior," Karl-Heinz Klare, the deputy chairman of the CDU parliamentary group in the Lower Saxony parliament, told the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung on Tuesday. "People want this matter to be completely investigated, otherwise the office of president will be damaged."
A member of the national parliament for the pro-business liberal Free Democratic Party, the junior collation partner in Merkel's coalition, attacked Wulff directly on Tuesday.
"If it's true that he as president personally rang up an editor in chief and left a message on his mailbox then that's not the stature I expect from a German president," Holger Zastrow told the MDR Info public radio on Tuesday.
Wulff is under mounting pressure to make a personal statement explaining his behavior. On Monday, his office said he would not comment on personal conversations made by the president.
If Wulff does resign, it would be a blow to Merkel and to the office of the German head of state, a largely ceremonial post that nevertheless plays a distinct role in German public life, largely through speeches, but also by signing legislation.
Merkel proposed Wulff as president and would have to nominate a successor capable of winning support in the Federal Assembly, the special body convened to elect German presidents. It's the last thing she needs at the start of difficult year during which she shall be struggling to contain the euro crisis.
Wulff's predecessor, Horst Köhler, who was also nominated by Merkel, resigned in May 2010 in disgust at the public criticism of remarks he had made about the purpose of German military missions abroad.
On Tuesday, German newspapers, even conservative ones, poured scorn on Wulff, further weakening his position by implying strongly that he isn't up to the job.
As the formal powers of German presidents are curtailed by the constitution, their authority rests largely on their credibility and personal aura. In Wulff's case this has been severely and possibly irrevocably damaged, editorialists argue.
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"A president who expresses his commitment to press freedom only to trample on it at the decisive moment seems out of place in an open society. Politicians, and that includes federal presidents, don't need to be and shouldn't be saints, and they can even have made big mistakes in their pre-presidential lives, but they must learn from those mistakes and obtain a kind of integrity by fire that shapes their future actions."
"Christian Wulff often appears as though he is trying to fathom out the office of president in a learning by doing process. It is becoming plainer by the day even to his patient defenders and benevolent intepreters that Wulff is falling short, in terms of wisdom, of the benchmark set by his predecessors in the nation's highest office, presidents like Theodor Heuss, Richard von Weizsäcker and Roman Herzog."
"What view of people must a president have who seriously believes that bothersome journalists could be deterred from their search for the truth by means of a presidential intevervention with the boss? Anyone who thinks and behaves in that way isn't especially interested in freedom of opinion and the sometimes unpleasant investigations of a free press, and instead has a hierarchical view of society. He disregards the rules an open civil society that can't be confined to a disrespectful pecking order and orders from above."
"Ideally, the office of president should only be filled by politicians whose natural authority lives up to the weighty aura of this office. This is in no way the case with Christian Wulff."
The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes that Wulff's behavior "is that of a head of state who has taken leave of his senses. How else can one imagine a president on his way to meet the Emir of Kuwait talking at length with the editor in chief of a tabloid newspaper on his mailbox about 'waging war' and threatening legal action and a 'final break with the Springer publishing house' if an undesired article about him, Wulff, is published? Only to personally apologize two days later for the tone and content of his comments?"
The leftist Frankfurter Rundschau writes:
"The president's job is to instil and maintain the citizen's faith in the lawfulness of the state. It was stupid of Wulff to make the threats with which he tried at the last minute to stop the publication of the ominous loan contracts on the mailbox of the Bild editor in chief. He could be forgiven for that. But the threats themselves, his attempt to prevent the work of a newspaper through pressure on the leadership of a company are inexcusable."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The constitution imposes strict limits on the formal power of the president. That means the president's authority and credibility depend on what the incumbent says and how he or she behaves. But it's possible to gamble away even this limited power. Wulff has done that. He tried to use his office to save Wulff the private man and then Wulff the statesman embarrassment, trouble and critical questions."
"The mixture of naiveté and cheek with which Wulff behaved is dismaying. He is no longer the council leader of Osnabrück or the governor of Lower Saxony, he is the head of state. This job is evidently too big for Wulff."
"In his public statement before Christmas Wulff lauded press freedom. But his call to Bild, which wasn't publicly known at the time, was an attempt to obstruct that very freedom."
"Wulff said he wants to continue filling his role 'with all his strength.' But he probably no longer has the strength to keep this country, this society together. A man who talks about press freedom while not respecting it is the wrong president."
The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"If Wulff had any remnants of credibility left, he completely destroyed them with these phone calls. The naiveté of the president is not the only surprising aspect. To assume that a newspaper as adept at street-fighting as Bild would really be deterred from printing an article is crazy. It is just as striking how this president ignored the dignity of his office. Wulff behaved like a provincial mayor who thinks he can tell the local newspaper to write what he wants. As president he constitutes an organ of state, he must protect and defend press freedom. Wulff's verdict is the opposite: Press freedom is all well and good -- but only if it doesn't hurt him."