THE German news media do not agree about much. But they have been almost at one in attacking Christian Wulff, the federal president, as the year ticked over. His sin, in their eyes, was not just to have borrowed €500,000 ($650,000) from the wife of a business friend on soft terms in 2008 when he was premier of the state of Lower Saxony. What irked them more was the news that he had made somewhat gauche attempts to suppress the story by threatening Kai Diekmann, editor of Bild, Germany’s biggest tabloid daily, with “war” when he learnt that the newspaper planned to print the home-loan story. His threats cut no ice; Bild went ahead and published. Two days later, Mr Wulff called Mr Diekmann again to apologise.
But the storm has only grown. Politicians and pundits from left and right are questioning Mr Wulff’s ability to survive in his largely ceremonial role, in which he is meant to embody the conscience of the nation. The public is more divided, with a recent poll showing a roughly even split between those who think he should resign and those who want him to stay.
Yet the people do not elect the German president. He is chosen by a federal assembly of roughly 1,200 notables, half of them from the Bundestag, the federal parliament’s lower house, and the rest appointees from the German states to the upper-house Bundesrat. And it is extremely difficult to unseat the president if he refuses to quit: either members of the federal parliament would have to take a case against him to the constitutional court, or he would have to be convicted of a felony.
Could he be? Prosecutors in Berlin are pondering if his threats infringed press freedom. But it is not clear that Mr Wulff has broken any laws. He borrowed money cheaply from a friend, and transferred the loan at low rates to a bank.
But there are further questions. That institution happens to be the house bank of Porsche, part of the Volkswagen group, on whose supervisory board Mr Wulff sat during his Lower Saxony premiership. Newspapers have speculated that the bank was repaying a favour by taking on the loan: Mr Wulff enlisted help from Volkswagen to save Porsche from bankruptcy in 2009. Nothing has emerged to substantiate these allegations, although the state of Baden-Württemberg is investigating whether the bank acted improperly. Mathew Rose, who writes on political corruption in Germany, says that Mr Wulff is hardly an outlier in a profession that throughout Europe has come to feed on “power and perks”.
Either way, Mr Wulff’s lack of support is embarrassing. Angela Merkel, the chancellor, used the new year holiday to avoid public comment and has remained silent. Hastily elected to the presidency in 2010 (with Mrs Merkel’s backing), Mr Wulff has had little impact on German life. He has made just one memorable remark, in October 2010: that “Islam is part of Germany”. In a country with a population of 4.3m Muslims, that should not have been controversial, although some members of Mr Wulff’s Christian Democratic Union found it hard to swallow.
Mr Wulff appears to want to tough it out for now. In a television interview on January 4th he insisted that he was “not a president on probation” and had broken no law. The call to Bild had been a serious mistake, he acknowledged, but he was only trying to protect his family. Even presidents have human rights, he said. The office had become more difficult lately, he admitted, but he felt that he had strengthened the presidency during his tenure.
Politicians from the CDU insisted that Mr Wulff had done a good job of trying to regain public trust in the interview. But noises from opposition parties suggest that he still has questions to answer. He may yet fall. Indeed, many analysts think that he would already have gone if Mrs Merkel had a credible replacement for him. But this would have to be a politically savvy heavyweight sympathetic to the CDU. Nobody seems to fit that bill.