Angela Merkel's hand-picked choice for the ceremonial post of president resigned on Friday in a scandal over political favors, dealing a blow to the German chancellor in the midst of the euro zone debt crisis.
In a curt five-minute statement at the Bellevue presidential palace, Christian Wulff acknowledged that he had lost the trust of the German people, making it impossible to continue in a role that is meant to serve as a moral compass for the nation.
"For this reason it is no longer possible for me to exercise the office of president at home and abroad as required," said Wulff, standing next to his wife Bettina.
Wulff announced his resignation a day after a request by prosecutors for Parliament to lift his immunity from prosecution over his relationship with a film producer in his previous job as governor of Lower Saxony. Those benefits allegedly included paying for a luxury hotel stay in 2007.
Merkel, who postponed a trip to Rome where she was to hold talks on the euro zone's debt crisis, voiced "deep regret" at his resignation. She moved quickly to limit the fallout and try to ensure a smooth succession, saying she would seek an agreement with the main opposition parties on the next president.
The chancellor is riding a wave of popularity in Germany for her handling of the crisis, but the departure of Wulff raises questions about her judgment because she forced through his appointment in 2010 over a strong opposition candidate most Germans favored.
Wulff is the second president to step down in less than two years. His predecessor, former International Monetary Fund chief Horst Koehler, resigned unexpectedly after coming under fire for comments he made about the German mission in Afghanistan and failing to get strong backing from Merkel.
Calling for Parliament to lift Wulff's immunity was an unprecedented move against a German president.
Prosecutors said there is "initial suspicion" that Wulff improperly accepted benefits from a German film producer friend, David Groenewold. The prosecutors said Groenewold is also under suspicion.
A steady drip of allegations has besieged the president over the past two months.
The affair kicked off in mid-December, when it emerged that Wulff had received a large private loan from a wealthy businessman friend's wife in his previous job as state governor.
That was followed in January by intense criticism over a furious call he made to the editor of Germany's biggest-selling newspaper before it reported on the loan. Neither of those things, however, resulted in an investigation.
Since then, there has been a constant stream of new revelations that have chipped away at his credibility, leading the German media to mock him and even invent a new verb in his honor. "Wulffen" — or literally "to Wulff" — means to be evasive without telling a clear lie.
Wulff said in his resignation he was convinced he would be fully cleared of any wrongdoing.
"I have always behaved legally correctly in the offices I held," he said. "I have made mistakes, but I was always honest."
Wulff's longtime spokesman, Olaf Glaeseker — whom the president fired in December — is also under investigation on corruption allegations in connection with the organization of business conferences.
The resignation is likely to embolden the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, who have shied away from criticizing Merkel too strongly in recent months.
Despite her vow to find a consensus candidate to replace Wulff, the choosing of a successor could prove divisive, distracting her just as European governments are trying to cobble together a second aid package for Greece to avert a chaotic default and euro zone exit.
How much of a distraction it becomes depends on how fast a successor can be agreed upon. A vote in the 1,244-seat Federal Assembly must take place within a month, or by March 18.
"This won't be without consequences for Merkel, her reputation will suffer from it," said Gerd Langguth, political scientist at Bonn University.
Merkel won a second term in 2009 and will not face another federal election until the autumn of 2013. But her party faces battles to hold onto power in the states of Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein in regional votes due in March and May.
A member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who served as premier of the western state of Lower Saxony, Wulff was once seen as a potential rival to Merkel and many in Germany saw his appointment as a ploy by the chancellor to push him out of the political arena.
Wulff has been one of the main targets at this year's carnival celebrations in the Rhineland where politicians are traditionally lampooned.
One float in the city of Mainz has an effigy of him with a black eye and plaster on his forehead slumped at the edge of a boxing ring. In Cologne, where the biggest processions take place, Wulff is dressed up as a grey rabbit on the butcher's table about to be carved up.
On a trip to Rome earlier this week and in a briefing with a small group of journalists on Thursday, Wulff made clear he planned to hang onto his post.
The speaker of the upper house of Parliament — Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, a member of Merkel's conservative bloc — now takes over the presidential duties on an interim basis, mostly signing legislation into law.
The leading contender to succeed him permanently is Joachim Gauck, an anti-Communist human rights activist in East Germany who ran against Wulff in 2010 and embarrassed Merkel by forcing the election in the Federal Assembly into a third round.
Other potential candidates include Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert and possibly Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, though shifting him to Bellevue palace would leave a gaping hole in Merkel's cabinet in the midst of the euro zone sovereign debt crisis.
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