German President Christian Wulff resigned on February 17 after prosecutors applied to have his presidential immunity stripped in a corruption scandal.
Wulff has been accused of having received a series of kickbacks from businessmen, including a home loan of 500,000 euros (paid via an anonymous bank cheque) in 2008.
He is also accused of receiving favourable car deals, free hotel-stays, free airline upgrades and other perks during his time as premier of the state of Lower Saxony.
When German tabloid Bild threatened to publish the allegations, Wulff left voice messages on the editor's phone threatening "war".
As more corruption accusations surfaced, prosecutors in Hannover, capital of Lower Saxony, asked the Bundestag (federal parliament) to lift Wulff's presidential immunity.
Faced with the destruction of his credibility, Wulff resigned. He now faces possible charges and the loss of his parliamentary pension.
Under the German system, a new president must be elected within 30 days of the resignation of his predecessor.
The election consists of a vote by a "Federal Assembly" involving all 620 members of the Bundestag, plus an equal number of representatives – usually including as many celebrities than politicians – selected by the parliaments of the 16 German states.
In the interim, Horst Seehofer, president of the Bundesrat (German upper house) and leader of the arch-conservative Bavarian Social Christian Union (CSU), will act as president.
Wulff himself was elected president two years ago after his predecessor, Horst Koehler, also quit in disgrace.
Koehler resigned in the face of public outcry after he said Germany's involvement in the Afghan war served to protect its economic interests.
The fallout from Wulff’s resignation has dealt German Chancellor Angela Merkel a serious political blow and delivered Germany an unpredictable and contentious new president.
In 2010, Wulff won the presidency after three rounds of voting, narrowly defeating the main opposition candidate, Joachim Gauck (pictured).
Within two days of Wulff’s resignation, the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens had again put Gauck forward for the role.
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) initially opposed Gauck’s candidacy, and planned to put forward another candidate.
On February 19, however, Merkel’s neoliberal Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partner openly declared its support for Gauck, deliberately undermining her authority.
With a slim majority of as little as two votes, Merkel faced isolation and a big political embarrassment if she opposed Gauck.
After an angry shouting match with FDP leaders, she declared her support for Gauck's candidacy, but the political manoeuvring has dealt her authority as Chancellor a serious blow, even as she tries to cope with the ongoinging euro crisis.
Relations between the CDU and CSU, and the FDP have been badly poisoned, perhaps terminally. The fiasco has fed speculation the FDP could join the SPD and Greens in government after next year’s federal election.
Meanwhile, Gauck’s election is now little more than a formality, with the socialist Die Linke (“The Left”) now the only party in the Bundestag opposed. It has indicated it will run its own candidate for the March 18 vote.
A 72-year-old former East German dissident and Lutheran priest, Gauck is a problematic choice for president.
He supports German involvement in the war in Afghanistan, something opposed by more than 80% of German voters.
He is also a virulent anti-communist, having contributed a chapter to the German-language version of the largely discredited “Black Book of Communism”.
After German reunification, Gauck served as the first federal commissioner for the Stasi (East German secret police) archives. He conducted a McCarthyite inquisition against anyone with even the slightest connection with East Germany's former Stalinist regime.
During Gauck's decade-long crusade, thousands of people with only the most innocuous and tenuous links with the Stasi had their lives and careers ruined on the basis of rumour, innuendo and unsubstantiated hearsay.
Gauck - a proponent of the "free" market - has described the global Occupy movement as “unspeakably stupid” for criticising the finance markets, and he is an outspoken supporter of the vicious “Hartz IV” laws that have undermined Germany’s welfare and labour rights system.
He has also praised as “courageous” the statements of former banker and SPD member Thilo Sarrazin, author of the xenophobic book Germany Does Away With Itself.
Sarrazin claims that Muslim immigration is making Germany “stupid”, that Jews are cleverly taking advantage of Germans to enrich themselves, and openly calls for an end to multiculturalism, describing it a threat to German identity.
Gauck's positions on German history have also caused concerns.
One of his criticisms of the former East Germany was its acceptance of the Oder-Neisse Line – the Germany-Poland border drawn up after World War II – which saw Germany lose its eastern-most territories.
Gauck has also tried to equate the East German regime with the Nazi reign, leading to the criticism that he is attempting diminishing the significance of Nazi atrocities.
If, as seems almost certain, Gauck is elevated to the presidency on March 18, Germany seems set for a challenging period, where its role in Europe - past and present - is once again under question.