The German Presidency: Another Resignation in the Making?
In the wake of potential scandals and major missteps, how long will it be before Germany’s new president resigns?
September 24, 2010
Ever since the unfortunate days of the late-stage Weimar Republic — when the office of President was in the hands of a tired old war hero who had turned into such a push-over that he appointed Adolf Hitler in a moment of particular benightedness — the Germans have tried ardently to keep holders of that office out of the headlines.
Much like the Queen of England, they are supposed to wave their hands to delighted fellow citizens during public appearances, but ideally they are not really heard from, other than in moments that are rather closely proscribed, such as giving a brilliant speech or two during their five-year term.
As Germany’s democracy matured over the latter part of the 20th century, there were attempts to enliven the office with more powers of moral suasion and outspokenness on ethical and long-term issues.
This has been so from the inimitable days of the dour but effective Gustav Heinemann — a man who will forever remain in the annals of German politics for his deadpan answer when asked during an interview whether he loved "the state." "No," he curtly answered, "I love my wife."
In July 2004, Horst Köhler took the post. A man who had made his career outside the political theater, including as head of the IMF in Washington, D.C., he resigned to everybody’s surprise on May 31, 2010, shortly after his reelection to a second term. There had been no real reason for him to do so.
While he had been criticized for some incomprehensible remarks during a trip to Afghanistan concerning Germany's role and responsibilities in the world as a major exporting nation, his resignation was widely seen as a case of being amazingly thin-skinned for anybody holding high political office.
His successor, Christian Wulff, has been in office only since June 30, 2010. And while he had a hard time getting elected, owing to changing majorities in the German body politic, once he was in, he was supposed to be a sure thing. He is a professional politician, after all.
Well, turns out he is anything but. Pretty much from the day he took office, he made headlines by such amazing acts as implicitly calling for the resignation of the mayor of Duisburg, where a stampede during the Love Parade led to the tragic death of 21 people — even though it was still the very early days of the investigation.
Next, in the case of the loose-lipped German central banker, Thilo Sarrazin, Mr. Wulff and his staff became very actively involved in the effort of removing this outspoken man — with extreme views on social and ethnic issues that went far beyond the remit of a central banker — from the Bundesbank’s board.
Trouble is, the Federal President appoints such officials — and is the one who eventually has the role of handing senior officials their walking papers if they are guilty of serious malfeasance. Mr. Wulff corrupted this procedure by not letting due process run its course.
Instead, he exposed himself to the unwelcome charge that he was acting as judge, jury and executioner, all in one — hardly in keeping with his intended ceremonial role.
But all of these happenings seem like peanuts compared to the real scandal that now seems to be rolling Mr. Wulff’s way. While the man had been admired over the years for his perseverance in eventually leading his conservative party to the governorship in the state of Lower Saxony, it now seems that his success in political office was greased by some very shady, and most likely illegal, financial operations of some of his closest confidants.
As it now stands, Mr. Wulff’s team in particular used the city works of Wolfsburg, the headquarters of Volkswagen, as a kind of piggy bank for financing all sorts of political operations, including election campaigns.
Key members of his former gubernatorial team are already under criminal investigation. And even though German prosecutors, under the law, cannot avail themselves of that handy American legal technique called plea bargaining — where one can offer a person a reduced sentence in exchange for handing over clear evidence against the bigger fish in the food chain — the writing is on the wall.
Insiders think the odds are 50/50 as to whether Mr. Wulff will manage to weather the crisis. Some of them are quite convinced that, this time, the Office of Federal President could make headlines by having a "real" resignation — i.e., one due to actual malfeasance, not just one resulting from a moment of personal pique, as was, sadly, the case with Mr. Köhler.
If events and evidence force a resignation, that would actually be a welcome development, as it would underscore to all the "players" in the political process that there are clear limits to shady dealings.
Better yet, none of this — in the case of an eventual Wulff resignation — would lead to anything resembling a constitutional crisis. The reason for this rests in the person of Joachim Gauck, the former anti-communist human rights activist in East Germany and the candidate who stood against Mr. Wulff in the 2010 elections.
He was beat only in the third round of voting — and regrettably so because it meant that the party machineries in the end did manage to pull through, as was to be expected (or feared).
Mr. Gauck, however, remains an ideal candidate for that high post — and a potentially quick replacement in case Mr. Wulff finds it inevitable to resign. Gauck is a man with solid support among members of all political parties, as well as among the public at large.
As a non-politician, but a very articulate and thoughtful man, he would be able to fill the office in the ideal manner — as a citizen-president, one who can speak his mind openly and with authority, without being wedded to the political class or narrow political allegiances.
He also possesses a high degree of moral authority owing to his ten years spent as Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives, during which he sought to expose the crimes of the former East German secret police force.
In these times where the political process has become overly professionalized in many a country the world over, it would be refreshing to have an advocate of the people, the entire population, act as a voice against the self-centeredness, self-absorption and ultimately arrogance of the political class.
In every crisis lies opportunity. Maybe the Germans will luck out, after an admittedly circuitous road and involving not just one, but potentially two, resignations by getting a president they can be proud of.
It would be a day the entire class of professional politicians would remember as a stark warning sign.
If events and evidence force a resignation, that would underscore to all the "players" in the political process that there are clear limits to shady dealings.
Ever since the unfortunate days of the late-stage Weimar Republic, the Germans have tried ardently to keep holders of that office out of the headlines.
Joachim Gauck is an ideal candidate to take over the German presidency from Mr. Wolff. He has solid support among members of all political parties, as well as among the public at large.
Insiders think the odds are 50/50 as to whether Mr. Wulff will manage to weather the crisis.