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German President Christian Wulff Resigns Following Financial Scandal

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Christian Wulff (AP)
Christian Wulff (AP)

BERLIN — Germany's president resigned Friday in a scandal over favors he allegedly received before becoming head of state, and Chancellor Angela Merkel moved quickly to try and head off a domestic political crisis as she grapples with Europe's debt troubles.

Christian Wulff, who was Merkel's candidate for the presidency when elected less than two years ago, quit after two months of allegations he received favors such as a favorable loan and hotel stays from friends when he was governor of Lower Saxony state.

Pressure mounted after prosecutors in the state capital, Hannover, asked Parliament Thursday to lift his immunity so they could start a formal investigation of allegations related to a film producer friend.

Merkel, who called off a trip to Rome on Friday, 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.

Wulff, 52, was a deputy leader of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union before becoming president in a messy 2010 election in which the opposition's candidate, well-regarded former East German human rights activist Joachim Gauck, drew votes from Merkel's center-right coalition.

Prosecutors said there was an "initial suspicion" that Wulff improperly accepted or granted benefits in his relationship with David Groenewold, a German film producer whom they also plan to investigate. Those benefits allegedly included Groenewold paying for a luxury hotel stay in 2007.

Wulff said he was stepping down because Germany needs "a president who is supported by the confidence not just of a majority of citizens, but a wide majority."

"The developments of recent days and months have shown that this confidence, and therefore my ability to act, have been lastingly impaired," a somber Wulff said in a brief statement at the president's Bellevue palace, with his wife, Bettina, at his side.

The speaker of Parliament's upper house, conservative Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, will take over the presidential duties on an interim basis, mostly signing legislation into law.

A special parliamentary assembly made up of lower-house lawmakers and representatives of Germany's 16 states must elect a successor within 30 days.

Merkel's center-right coalition, which is prone to infighting, has only a wafer-thin majority in that assembly.

Just half an hour after Wulff resigned, the chancellor said the governing parties would quickly approach the opposition Social Democrats and Greens regarding a successor.

Andrea Nahles, the Social Democrats' general secretary, said she was relieved by Wulff's resignation, which she described as "necessary and overdue," and also welcomed Merkel's overture.

The Wulff scandal hasn't yet had any impact on Merkel's popularity, which is running high amid her hard-nosed leadership of the eurozone debt crisis.

Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University, said he didn't expect any long-term damage to Merkel, and added that the chancellor "reacted absolutely right" to Wulff's resignation.

It wasn't immediately obvious what candidate might draw cross-party support. Speculation has centered on figures such as Merkel Cabinet ministers Thomas de Maiziere and Ursula von der Leyen, Parliament speaker Norbert Lammert, former U.N. Environment Program leader and ex-minister Klaus Toepfer, and Gauck.

But Niedermayer was skeptical as to whether any of them had a chance, and argued that Gauck would be too divisive after the 2010 election.

He said he didn't expect the issue to have any impact on the eurozone debt crisis beyond the fact that it would add an extra demand on Merkel's time.

The primary role of Germany's president is to serve as a moral authority, and Wulff's authority already had been eroded before prosecutors dropped their bombshell on Thursday.

Calling for Parliament to lift Wulff's immunity was an unprecedented move against a German president.

The Groenewold allegations were the latest in a steady drip of accusations that have besieged the president, casting doubt on his judgment and integrity.

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 when he was governor and hadn't mentioned it to the state legislature.

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. Wulff then said the call was a mistake, but sparred publicly with the paper over whether he had tried to block its story.

Neither of those things, however, resulted in an investigation.

Wulff said in his resignation statement 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 follows his predecessor, also nominated by Merkel, in resigning early.

In mid-2010, Horst Koehler quit abruptly a year into his second five-year term, citing criticism over comments he made about the German military.

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