Fri Jan 6th, 2012 at 05:33:14 AM EST
The scandals engulfing Germany's figurehead, Federal President Christian Wulff, elicited considerable discussion in the Salon yesterday, so here is a diary to continue the discussion, with a short summary of the main facts for a wider audience.
Summary of the summary: the media first attacked Wulff over various 'gifts' he received from businessman friends before he was President, then for his way of always admitting only what was already in the public, then for his attempt to supress the first media report that launched the scandal. While Wulff's career is on the line, the bigger question marks are over the motivations of the media group that set off and fuelled the scandal, the person of Wulff's eventual successor and the re-shuffle that would bring in the really important political positions, and the future of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her current conservative-liberal coalition government.
First, about the post: in Germany, while the Chancellor is the head of government, elected by the Bundestag, the lower house of the federal parliament; the Federal President (Bundespräsident) is the largely representative and ceremonial head of state, elected by a special assembly (the Bundesversammlung = Federal Assembly) consisting of all members of the Bundestag and delegations of the regional parliaments of Germany's 16 states. The Federal President has little power beyond forcing a check of selected laws, is supposed to stand above parties and represent all, and play a grandfather of the nation.
Christian Wulff was a politician of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). He was the prime minister of Lower Saxony state for seven years – a post earlier held by Gerhard Schröder before he became chancellor, and Wulff beat Schröder's mid-term successor Sigmar Gabriel for the post, who is the present chairman of the Social Democrats (SPD). Wulff nurtured the image of a smooth operator with mild manners and good looks, although in truth he was part of a network of ambitious CDU hotshots (who were the main obstacle Merkel had to overcome on her way to hegemony in her party), all of them knowing how to wield power against the masses, launch intrigues against rivals, and instrumentalise the media. When the then Federal President resigned in 2010, Merkel thought to get rid of her last remaining rival of significance by nominating him for the post, and the apparently party-politics-weary Wulff accepted. (Read all of this in greater detail in Merkel Above All.)
As a final context-establishing note before the scandals, let me note the main player: the tabloid Bild Zeitung resp. its owner, the Axel Springer Verlag. The role of the two in Germany is similar to that of The Sun resp. the Murdoch empire in the UK: the number one mass daily superficially catering to the entertainment interests of the lower classes (football, formula one, crime, celebs, boobs) but in truth doing the most manipulative right-populist propaganda in the process, lifting or demolishing individual politicians and advocating various ideological positions (most notably xenophobia) – a political force heeded by (and in doing so bolstered by) politicians. (For more details, see Spiegel vs. Bild.) For a long time, Bild supported Wulff, but initially supported another candidate when he was nominee for Federal President, and switched to attacks when Wulff made gestures towards Muslims in Germany and fired Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin over the controversy he kicked off with a notorious anti-immigrants book (which was promoted by Bild and other media).
The Wulff scandal started on 13 December, when Bild revealed that Wulff got a 500,000 loan on preferential terms from a businessman (Egon Geerkens) who was a personal friend via Wulff's late father. Wulff tried to defend himself by splitting hairs over circumstances like nominally getting the money from Geerkens' wife, but his half-truths only earned him more attacks for being economical with the truth and only admitting what is already in the public.
To me the original loan scandal appears borderline, because Geerkens was retired and seems to have been more of a lifetime father figure than a corrupting funder. However, other improper dealings emerged: holidays for free with various businessmen (remember French President Nicolas Sarkozy's post-election holiday?), and a second preferential loan: Wulff refinanced the first loan with another low-interest-rate loan from a subsidiary of Baden-Württtenberg state's state bank, and this one became effective after the first scandal broke.
Once the previous scandals started to run out of steam over the festivities (as far as public opinion is concerned), Bild set off an even bigger scandal at the start of this week with leaks that were first published by the main conservative broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: on the day before the publication of the first loan story, Wulff called Bild's chief editor in an attempt to prevent its publication. Bild then promptly "confirmed" the reports, adding that Wulff actually made multiple telephone calls to muliple Springer executives. Wulff's defense was that he only wanted to delay publication, not prevent it, saying that this is standard procedure behind the scenes (and he's quite likely right about the last), and saying that he called again to say sorry a few days later. Bild retorted by publicly announcing that they would like to publish the transcript of a voicemail. Yesterday, Wulff refused to grant permission, saying his "sorry" should have been the end of that affair, so Bild again retorted that Wulff is violating his promise to the public about total transparency. In the meantime, they again tried to instrumentalise other media by spreading excerpts of the transcripts to other journalists.
During the week, Wulff's popularity took a plunge in public opinion, although polls still see a thin majority against his resignation. On the other hand, wide majorities also think that there is a media campaign against him.
What is Bild's motivation behind this obvious campaign to bring Wulff down, and why now? So far, other media didn't dig up much, one can only speculate.
Who could succeed Wulff? There aren't many obvious candidates. But one possibility is federal finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a senior politician of the Kohl era already, who did want the post in the past. Since Schäuble plays a key role in the Euro crisis, his replacement would be of a greater importance than that of Wulff. It is of note that due to losses in recent regional elections, the conservative-liberal majority in the Federal Assembly (would it be called together now) is only a couple of seats. Due to the fact that some regional parliaments include prominent persons with weak party allegiance alongside MPs in their delegations, this majority is shaky.
What about the future of Merkel and the government? Since both Wulff's failed predecessor and Wulff himself were picked by Merkel, this scandal has the potential to damage her. However, so far no sign of that. In fact, in the last polls of both ARD and ZDF (the two public TV channels), Merkel returned to the top spot in the popularity list of politicians. It seems her fake statesmanship and cynical allusions to chauvinistic sentiments in her alliance to the EU shock doctrine advocates within the finance ministry and the Bundesbank since early 2010 did work out: she still understands like no other how to come out on top from every crisis.