REPORTING FROM LONDON -- In a major embarrassment for Chancellor Angela Merkel, German President Christian Wulff resigned Friday after weeks of a brewing scandal over favors he allegedly received as an elected official before becoming the country's head of state.
Wulff, 52, acknowledged in a terse statement in Berlin that the controversy surrounding him had sapped public faith in his ability to serve as president and as a uniting force in Germany.
"The republic needs a president who can dedicate himself unhindered to these and other national challenges and enormous international challenges, a president who is supported by the confidence of not only a majority but a wide majority of citizens," Wulff told reporters. "The last few weeks have shown that this trust and therefore my ability to be effective have suffered sustained damage."
He added that he was certain of exoneration by any investigation into allegations of official misconduct during his tenure as leader of the state of Lower Saxony. Wulff presided over the state from 2003 until 2010, when the German parliament voted him in as the country's president.
His resignation is a blow to Merkel, Europe's most powerful leader, who had put forward Wulff as her choice for head of state.
Both politicians belong to the ruling Christian Democratic party, and Merkel refused to withdraw her support over the last few weeks even as questions about Wulff's conduct grew. The persistent scandal, concerning an allegedly improper loan Wulff received from a friend's wife, has been a major distraction for Merkel as she wrestles with Europe’s debt crisis and other pressing issues.
Merkel abruptly canceled plans to meet Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti in Rome on Friday to deal with the setback at home.
"Mr. Wulff has decided that he is going to step back and push the interest of the general public to the forefront," Merkel said in a brief appearance before journalists.
For Merkel, Wulff's departure sets up what could be a tough fight in parliament over his successor. Although she remains the country's most popular politician, her coalition government has been beset by debilitating infighting.
The post of president in Germany is largely ceremonial but carries great moral authority. The governor of the state of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, will serve as acting president until a successor is chosen.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Christian Wulff, president of Germany, announces his resignation in Berlin on Friday. Credit: Maurizio Gambarini /EPA