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Profile: Christian Wulff lived and died by the media

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10:42 CET+01:00
Long criticised for a bland public profile as German head of state, Christian Wulff hurtled to the centre of the political stage with a rapid series of scandals that proved to be his undoing as president.

Chancellor Angela Merkel had hoped in hand-picking the genial, inoffensive Wulff as her candidate for the largely honorific office could help her shore up support for her unpopular government while sidelining a potential challenger.

However Wulff's courtship of the wealthy and powerful in business and media, cultivated to his advantage in his home state Lower Saxony and later with his glamorous wife Bettina in Berlin, proved to be his undoing.

According to several reports in the media, he was expected to step down later Friday after prosecutors asked the Bundestag parliament to consider removing his immunity so they could investigate various allegations.

The preternaturally youthful Wulff, 52, governed the state of Lower Saxony, home to automaker Volkswagen, from 2003 to 2010, when he became Germany's youngest president.

A high-profile perch, Lower Saxony was seen as a possible launch pad for Wulff to one day pose a challenge to Merkel.

By having him elected president, Germany's first woman chancellor effectively neutralised him by placing him in a golden cage far removed from the real instruments of political power.

But he retained close ties to the state's business elite, who sponsored a number of holidays in the sun and offered a helping hand at crucial moments, including the 2008 home loan from the wife of a tycoon friend that touched off the affair that is expected to have brought him down.

He left his longtime wife Christiane in 2006 for public relations executive Bettina Körner, 14 years his junior, and launched a charm offensive to mollify his conservative base after the shock announcement.

They married in 2008 and have a small son, in addition to a teenage daughter from Wulff's previous marriage, and the powerful mass market Bild daily helped to restore his image as a wholesome family man.

However his cosy relations with the paper's publisher Springer soured when he reportedly threatened journalists on two separate occasions over their reporting, and these revelations proved a stinging blow to his political career.

The German president, ensconced in Berlin's sumptuous Bellevue Palace, serves as a kind of moral arbiter for the nation, receiving state guests and occasionally weighing in with contemplative speeches on the issues of the day.

Soon after taking office, he ruffled conservative feathers by wading into a heated national debate on Muslim immigrants by stating that Islam was part of German life and the country would do well to embrace the fact.

Last year, he took the unusual step of criticising the European Central Bank, whose independence is seen as sancrosanct in Germany, by saying it was "asking for trouble" by buying up sovereign bonds to beat back the debt crisis.

And during a visit of Pope Benedict XVI to his native Germany in September, the Catholic Wulff called on the Church to be more understanding of people like himself who divorced.

Born on June 19, 1959 in the northwestern city of Osnabrück, the boy who would become Germany's youngest president had to take on enormous responsibilities at a tender age.

At 14, he became the primary caregiver for his divorced mother, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, and his younger sister.

He became active in the CDU at the age of 20, and was just 34 when he first challenged Gerhard Schröder, who would later become chancellor, for the premiership of Lower Saxony, where politics and business notoriously go hand in hand.

It took him two tries but he eventually wrested control of the state in 2003 from Sigmar Gabriel, Schröder's crown prince and current leader of the Social Democrats.

Merkel chose him as her candidate for president when Horst Köhler abruptly resigned from the office over remarks that appeared to justify the use of German military power to protect the country's economic interests.

But his election was messy, requiring three rounds of voting before a special parliamentary body to secure the necessary majority.

Members of Merkel's ruling coalition rebelled against his candidacy and delivered her a damaging political setback, second now only to Wulff's scandals and resignation.

AFP/mry

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