Recent news reports that former German president Christian Wulff had taken up the role of authorised representative of Turkish fashion label Yargici have rekindled a ‘smouldering’ debate about the role and entitlements of former presidents in Germany. The flames of this discussion, last hotly conducted following Wullf’s resignation amidst corruption allegations and attempts to suppress related news reports, have been fanned further by criticism of the new offices for former president Joachim Gauck, Wulff’s successor. Although the upcoming general election has meant that the topic received comparatively less attention, it is bound to return in the next years and changes to ex-presidents’ status are likely.
For a long time, post-political careers of German politicians were not a widely debated issue. Cabinet ministers often remained members of the Bundestag after serving in government and usually retired from politics – and work life – in their 60s and 70s. Chancellors usually left office at a similar age and refrained from controversial activities (the work of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) as lobbyist for Russian companies is a notable exception). Federal presidents on the other hand were usually already in their mid-sixties or older when taking office and had thus little opportunity to develop a new career after leaving office. This trend is mirrored in a number of other parliamentary republics, although it is not uncommon for younger former office-holders to re-enter politics (e.g. Latvian president Valdis Zatlers founded his own party and entered parliament as an MP after being denied re-election as president).
From the point of taking office, German presidents are entitled to an “honorary pay” of €236,000 p.a. for life, so that – as is commonly argued – former presidents do not need to pursue any other employment upon leaving office. Particularly the resignation of Christian Wulff after less than two years in office and aged only 53 has opened a number questions in this regard – For instance: Is a president entitled to honorary pay if they do not complete their term of office? And who is responsible for deciding about a president’s claim to honorary pay? While Wulff continued to receive his honorary pay after leaving office prematurely and the above questions remain unresolved, politicians agreed on ensuring that at least the ex-presidents’ offices – an important post-presidency perk – were run on a more cost-effective basis. Both Christian Wulff and his successor Joachim Gauck have thus not opened their offices in their former hometowns or pricey parts of Berlin, but in buildings belonging to the Bundestag (although this, too, remains controversial – see below). Furthermore, their number of staff is limited en par with offices for former chancellors.
Since Christian Wulff was cleared of corruption allegations in 2014, the majority of political commentators have quietly accepted the fact that Christian Wulff continues to receive honorary pay – also because he represented Germany at a number of occasions (former presidents frequently step in for their successors or chancellors at state funerals) and kept a relatively low public profile. Wulff, a trained lawyer, also opened a legal practice in his home town of Hanover – a move likewise regarded as largely uncontroversial as he returned to his original profession. Nevertheless, the move to become an authorised representative and thus not merely an advisor but active part of a business has changed perceptions of what might be an acceptable post-office career for a former president. Furthermore, politicians and citizens alike have been irritated by the fact that honorary pay is not reduced as a reflection of addition earnings – entitlements from state pensions on the other hand are counted against any honorary pay after reaching retirement age.
Yet Christian Wulff is not the only former president who has recently been criticised over expenditure. As mentioned above, former presidents are entitled to a fully staffed office upon leaving the office to be able to fulfil the role of ‘elder statesman’. Joachim Gauck left office earlier this year and his office has now been opened in the buildings of the Bundestag. Nevertheless, Gauck incurred charges for installing additional security on his floor (despite the building already being under the same protective measures as other parliamentary buildings) and a personal toilet with security lock for the president (costing €52,000) as well as €35,000 for new furniture. In addition, two of Gaucks members of staff have effectively received promotions and Gauck chief of cabinet in particular now earns more than he did when Gauck was still in office.
The only other living president, Horst Köhler, presents an interesting counter-example to his successors: Although Köhler claims an allowance for his office in an upscale office park in Berlin, he has refrained from claiming any honorary pay since leaving office. However, this is can hardly be an example to follow – as a former director of the International Monetary Fond (IMF), Köhler likely has a private pension that would far exceed a former president’s honorary pay.
Thus overall the question remains on how to deal with former presidents. It is clear that the traditional model predicated on the idea that the presidency is the crowning and final achievement of one’s life is – thanks to the election of younger candidates and longer life expectancy of former presidents – no longer practical. Furthermore, as the additional earnings of active politicians come under greater scrutiny it becomes even more difficult to justify expenditures for former holders of a largely representative office to the public. The next Bundestag would be in an interesting position to regulate on these questions as it is not involved in the next presidential election and parties can thus debate the issue with greater flexibility. However, viable proposals for change are still lacking as the most concrete suggestions stem from the discussions about Christian Wulff and would thus only regulate some very specific aspects of this complicated matter.
For follow-up reading, you may be interested in my comparison of European presidents’ salaries:
Presidents and Paupers I: How much do Western European presidents earn?
Presidents and Paupers II: How much do Central and East European presidents earn?