Presidential scandal another headache for Merkel

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced a dual setback Friday as support for her coalition partners plummeted to a record low in an opinion poll and the president fought for his political life.

Merkel's return from the Christmas break coincided with escalating pressure on fellow CDU party member President Christian Wulff over whether he tried to block a story about a low-interest home loan from a wealthy friend's wife.

While Merkel hosted the traditional Epiphany singers on Thursday, Wulff, 52, publicly crossed swords with Germany's most powerful newspaper, a day after he went on national television to address the criticism.

Bild newspaper claimed Wulff had tried to prevent the story being published.

Editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann released a fax asking the president to agree to Bild releasing a transcript of an angry voicemail message Wulff left him on December 12, one day before the loan story appeared.

Wulff, who claimed in the television interview watched by 11.5 million people that he had just sought to delay its publication by a day, refused, saying it was a private matter for which he had apologised.

Opposition lawmakers from the Social Democrats (SPD) have waded in, calling for action from Merkel who so far has voiced support for Wulff but refrained from commenting on the substance of the criticism.

"If Mrs Merkel is interested in putting an end to this sanctimonious spectacle, she should convince Christian Wulff to agree to the publication," SPD chief whip Thomas Oppermann said.

"Only publication of the voicemail (message) can prove whether he lied or not."

And the president, whose role is ceremonial but carries moral authority, was further challenged Friday when a bank reportedly contradicted his account of when he took out a loan.

Merkel faced further bad news as she gears up for a diplomatic flurry of eurozone crisis talks next week, hosting French President Nicholas Sarkozy on Monday and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti on Wednesday.

An opinion poll Thursday by ARD-DeutschlandTrend revealed that support for the junior partner in her coalition, the Free Democratic Party, had slumped to just two percent -- well below the five percent needed to enter parliament.

The pro-business party, in power with Merkel's Christian Democrats nationally since 2009, has been in disarray for months amid internal squabbling and a series of humiliating electoral setbacks.

Spiegel news weekly commented in its online edition that Merkel's political opponents were trying to turn the "Causa Wulff" into a "Causa Merkel" and that she had been in a "jam" since the loan scandal broke.

"Wulff's fall would also be a real personal defeat for Merkel," it said.

His election by parliament in June 2010 proved humiliating for Merkel as members of her own coalition broke ranks and refused to vote for him amid a strong challenge from a former East German dissident, a political outsider.

Wulff, who had once been considered a potential challenger to Merkel, only eked out a victory in the third round of the vote.

Another poll published Thursday by ARD showed that 60 percent of those questioned favoured giving Wulff a second chance, although 61 percent also said they had not been convinced by his television appearance.

Wulff landed in hot water last month when Bild reported that he had concealed a home loan at an advantageous interest rate he accepted from the wife of a tycoon friend while premier of Lower Saxony state.

When opposition state deputies asked him whether he had business ties to the tycoon or any firms connected with him, Wulff had kept quiet.

He has apologised and admitted that he should have come clean about the home loan earlier but has insisted he would stay on in the job.

© 2012 AFP

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