Disgraced ex-president cold-shouldered in Germany

BERLIN Tue Mar 6, 2012 2:12pm GMT

Former German President Christian Wulff makes a statement in the presidential residence Bellevue Palace in Berlin, February 17, 2012. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

Former German President Christian Wulff makes a statement in the presidential residence Bellevue Palace in Berlin, February 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's former presidents have dealt a humiliating blow to their disgraced successor Christian Wulff, who resigned last month over a political favours scandal, by shunning a torchlit military parade in his honour.

Nearly three weeks after quitting, Wulff continues to make headlines for accepting an annual pension of 199,000 euros (165,000 pounds) for the rest of his life despite spending just 20 months in office.

Wulff stood down after prosecutors said they suspected he had accepted undue privileges and asked parliament to lift his immunity. It was a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel who had handpicked him for the largely ceremonial post in 2010.

In a sign of the depth of feeling against Wulff, Germany's four living former presidents have declined to take part in Thursday's parade of honour. They are Walter Scheel, Richard von Weizsaecker, Roman Herzog and Horst Koehler.

Merkel's government has been forced to defend the traditional evening ceremony at which soldiers in dress uniform play music and hold torches aloft.

Wulff has requested the band play "Over the Rainbow," from the movie "The Wizard of Oz" at the ceremony, which is performed for outgoing presidents, chancellors and defence ministers.

Several opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens politicians criticised the ceremony and SPD lawmaker Johannes Kahrs said it should be scrapped given Wulff's "embarrassing and unworthy" behaviour.

"I think the military honour is inappropriate for Mr Wulff," he told Handelsblatt Online. "The honour is lacking."

Politicians in Merkel's centre-right coalition gave less than wholehearted backing to the occasion and the top-selling Bild newspaper reported unease in army ranks.

"In ex-President Wulff's current situation, I do not think this honour is appropriate," Bild quoted former Brigadier Helmut Harff as saying.

"CLOUDS FAR BEHIND"

Wulff's musical requests have also attracted criticism. Media reported the brass band argued against playing the Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder hit "Ebony and Ivory" because it was unsuitable for trumpets.

Wulff has now requested four pieces of music, in contrast to the customary three, including "Over the Rainbow," originally sung by Judy Garland. Some commentators ridiculed the choice and poked fun at Wulff for wanting to wake up "where the clouds are far behind me," as the lyrics say.

Once regarded as a potential rival to Merkel, conservative Wulff was premier of the state of Lower Saxony before becoming president in 2010.

His reputation took a hammering last year when Bild accused him of misleading the state parliament over a cheap home loan from a businessman friend. He later apologised for threatening the editor of Bild with "war" if he published the story.

Since then, a stream of allegations about flight upgrades, hotel stays and free gifts have chipped away at his credibility. The media has even invented a new verb -- "wulffen," or "to Wulff," which means being evasive without telling a clear lie.

Prosecutors have searched Wulff's private home as part of their investigations. In addition to outrage about his pension, many politicians are angry about his possible entitlement to some 280,000 euros annually for an office, staff and driver.

Anti-Communist rights activist in East Germany, Joachim Gauck, is set to be voted president by a special assembly later this month.

(Reporting By Madeline Chambers)

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