Prosecutors asked Germany's parliament Thursday to lift the president's immunity in a scandal over favors he allegedly received before becoming head of state _ a move that increases pressure on him and raises new questions over his ability to stay in the job.
Christian Wulff, who was Chancellor Angela Merkel's nominee for the presidency in 2010, has been embroiled in the slow-burning affair since mid-December, when it emerged that he had received a large private loan from a wealthy friend's wife in his previous job as governor of Lower Saxony state.
That was followed in January by intense criticism over a furious call he made to the editor of Germany's biggest-selling newspaper before it reported on the loan. Neither of those things, however, resulted in an investigation of Wulff.
Prosecutors in Hannover, Lower Saxony's capital, said there is now an "initial suspicion" that Wulff improperly accepted or granted benefits in his relationship with David Groenewold, a German film producer, and requested that Wulff's immunity from prosecution be lifted so they can pursue an investigation _ an unprecedented move against a German president.
They said in a statement that Groenewold is also under suspicion.
The primary role of Germany's largely ceremonial president is to serve as a moral authority.
If Wulff decides to resign, it would be politically awkward for Merkel, who so far has defended the president, as she grapples with the European debt crisis. Merkel's center-right coalition, which is prone to infighting, would have only a wafer-thin majority, meaning she might have to seek a consensus candidate with the opposition. A special parliamentary assembly would have to elect a successor within 30 days.
Wulff's office could not immediately be reached for comment. It also wasn't clear when parliament's lower house might consider the request to lift Wulff's immunity.
Wulff, 52, has faced allegations that Groenewold, whose firm was granted a loan guarantee by Lower Saxony's government, paid for him and his wife to stay at a luxury hotel on the German resort island of Sylt in 2007, among other things.
While an "initial suspicion" of wrongdoing often does not lead to charges in Germany, the prosecutors' decision is a major blow to Wulff, whose popularity and authority already have been eroded in two months on the defensive.
Separately from Thursday's move, Wulff's longtime spokesman, Olaf Glaeseker _ whom the president fired in December without explanation _ is under investigation on corruption allegations in connection with the organization of business conferences.
Andrea Nahles, the general secretary of the opposition Social Democrats, said her party would vote to lift Wulff's immunity and indicated that he should go.
"It has never happened before that German prosecutors consider it necessary to investigate a head of state," Nahles said. "From my point of view, investigations by prosecutors are not compatible with the office of president."
Wulff has drawn criticism for his handling of the affair, during which he has said little and often communicated through his lawyers. He has said the call to the newspaper editor was a serious mistake, but has argued publicly with the publication over whether or not he was trying to block its report.
Wulff was a deputy leader of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union before he became president. He replaced Horst Koehler, another Merkel nominee for the presidency, in mid-2010 after Koehler unexpectedly resigned _ citing criticism over comments he made about the German military.