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Friday, 6 January 2012

Crying Wulff: Germany's Pathetic President


Herr and Frau Wulff

It being a new year and all, I’ve decided to try a little experiment here on this blog. Although I’ve lived in Germany for over a quarter of a century, German is not my first language. Apart from a few years at school, many years before I moved here, it is a language I have only learned to speak and write as an adult – and I still feel nervous about writing and publishing in it. But there is a bit of a political scandal brewing here at the moment which I feel like commenting on. Only Germans, with a few exceptions, will really have been following the story and will know all the background, so it seemed more sensible to put the first argument I want to present in German – apart from anything else, it saves me the trouble of having to explain all the tedious background to non-Germans.

For those of you who do not read German, do not despair! Following the next section in German, I will return to English, not to offer a direct translation, but to offer a few more thoughts, inspired by the current difficulties of the German president, Christian Wulff.

Wir hätten Joachim Gauck haben können …

Erinnern Sie sich noch? Es ist kaum mehr als anderthalb Jahre her, dass Horst Köhler überraschend die Brocken hinschmiss und Deutschland sich einen neuen Bundespräsidenten suchen musste.

Damals haben die SPD und die Grünen Joachim Gauck nominiert. Dieser Vorschlag war der Bundeskanzlerin und ihre Koalition nicht genehm … warum eigentlich nicht? Im Rückblick hauptsächlich, weil Gaucks Name von der Opposition ins Spiel gebracht wurde und eine Vollblutregierung nie und nimmer eine Idee der Opposition gutheißen darf. Dann und heute habe ich geglaubt, dass dies der eigentliche Grund war. Aber in jenen fernen Tagen, als Westerwelle noch Chef der FDP war, und Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg sich im Verteidigungsministerium profilierte, gab es auch von der Regierungsseite eine (angeblich) sachliche Argumentation.

Das Problem mit Horst Köhler, hieß es, war, dass er kein Profipolitiker war. Er verstand nicht, wie Sachen auf der politischen Ebene liefen, deshalb nahm er manches viel zu ernst, manch anderes nicht ernst genug. So großartig Joachim Gaucks Persönlichkeit auch sei, er wäre auch ein politischer Fremdling, in manchen Situationen eine ungesicherte Kugel. Köhler hatte gezeigt, wo so etwas hinführe, deshalb müsse jetzt ein richtiger Politiker dran. Jemand wie Christian Wulff eben …

Nun haben wir den Schlamassel. Abgesehen von eventuellen Fragen bezüglich der Finanzierung seines Hauses – und seien wir ehrlich: ist irgendjemand im Mindesten überrascht über kleinere Verflechtungen zwischen Geschäftsleuten und Politikern? – ausgerechnet ein Berufspolitiker müsste wissen, dass Drohungen gegen Journalisten und Redakteure, um zu verhindern, dass Geschichten über ihn geschrieben werden, gar nicht gehen.

Es gäbe für Frau Merkel eine Lösung für das jetzige Problem. Sie sollte Herrn Wulff den Rücktritt nahe legen und dann Herr Gauck der Bundesversammlung als Präsidentschaftskandidat der Regierung vorschlagen. Dabei könnte sie sich auf Herrn Wulff berufen und die Bereitschaft, aus eigenen Fehlern zu lernen, als positive Eigenschaft darstellen …

Let me quickly point out that the office of Federal President in Germany – in political terms – is not very important. It is almost exclusively a formal, representative office and the incumbent is not directly elected by the people but, rather, by a peculiar institution known as the Federal Assembly (composed of all the members of both houses of parliaments as well as an equal number of delegates, nominated by the provincial parliaments). Throughout the history of the Federal Republic, it has generally been used as an honorary parking lot for a senior politician, whose basic job is to spend five years looking worthy, shaking hands, and giving inspiring speeches.

It’s not all that long ago that Germany had trouble with its Federal President. In June 2010, Wulff’s predecessor, Horst Köhler resigned, basically, in a huff – an event which inspired me to write an early post here on this blog. Wulff, a professional politician who, up till then, had been Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, was chosen by the government coalition to succeed him.

In recent weeks there have been a number of reports circulating in the German media about how Wulff financed a private house purchase before he became president – it’s a complicated story involving a private loan from a wealthy businessman (or rather his wife) and a subsequent bank mortgage with interest rates which were, to say the least, generous. Questions were asked about the propriety of a political office holder being accorded this kind of friendly help. It was all stuff in that seedy grey area where elected politicians and other people of wealth, influence and power meet and move; cloudy moral areas often, where friendship and mutual advantage overlap – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

As all this was coming before the public eye, the German president phoned the chief editor of the Bild newspaper and tried to have a story killed (Wulff claims that he was only trying to have the story postponed and has since admitted that the phone-call was a “mistake”). He also apparently made some other calls, including one to the owner of Bild. The language he used and the threats he made in the call to the mailbox of the editor are claimed to have been pretty strong. What exactly was said is not officially known, since – although Wulff has done the whole public apology and repentance thing – he has refused the paper permission to publish the content of the message he left.

Leaving the question of the house financing to one side, it was his attempt to suppress reporting on the subject which, in my view, makes Wulff’s continuance in his office impossible. And expressing this opinion makes me immediately uncomfortable, not because I really have any sympathy for Wulff, but because it puts me into a situation where I find myself championing the cause of the Bild Zeitung.

Bild, the flagship of the Axel Springer publishing group, is no shrinking violet. It is a sensationalist, dumbed-down, frequently hysterical, exploitative rag, which would find itself completely at home in the grubbier corner of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. It is also Germany’s (and Europe’s) biggest circulating daily newspaper. In its chequered history it has not been loath to use its not inconsiderable power to influence the course of German politics; championing some politicians, dissing others to the extent that it has practically destroyed their careers, pushing questionable causes and occasionally fomenting public opinion in very unsavoury directions. It certainly does not need me to defend it.

Bild has also enjoyed a mutually parasitic profitable relationship with Christian Wulff for many years; this was probably why he thought he could come on so heavy in his attempt to have their story on his house financing quashed. In any case, it didn’t work; Bild not only published the piece, it also gleefully reported the president’s attempt to stop it.

He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon …

But behind all the Schadenfreude I feel watching this comedy of fools, the serious issue remains. For a head of state to try to personally muzzle any organ of the Fourth Estate is not on – even an organ as disreputable as Bild. If the president felt that the newspaper was behaving incorrectly, there were enough legal avenues open to him to have the publication of the article in question stopped; Germany’s privacy and reputation protection laws are generally a lot stricter than those in force in, for example, the UK. But Wulff, who is himself a lawyer, probably knew that he didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.

Will Wulff remain in office? The one who will ultimately answer this question is, of course, the real boss in Germany, Angela Merkel. Wulff was a member of her Christian Democrat Union up to his election (as president he is not allowed to be a member of a political party) and her nominee. Normally, I would tend to the view that she (and her president) will follow her usual tendency and sit the whole thing out. But I thought that too about the plagiarising Minister of Defence, Karl-Theodor zuGuttenberg, last year and, in the end, the public indignation at his conduct finally forced her to let him go (even if, ironically, one of his most stalwart supporters right up to the end was Bild).

As with zu Guttenberg, if Christian Wulff is forced to resign, it will be a result of widespread public opinion that his behaviour has been unworthy of a president. Should this happen, the Germans will have proved that they deserve a better president. At the moment he still seems determined to hang on to his post. But I suspect that the next weeks may well show that the most serious mistake Wulff has made was that phone-call to Kai Diekmann, the editor-in-chief of Bild. Not even because it was because it was a massive abuse of his position – but because the last enemy any mainstream politician in Germany wants is Bild.



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