BERLIN — The leader of Germany's tainted Christian Democratic Union resigned Wednesday to allow the opposition party a "fresh start" in winning back voters dismayed by allegations of bribe-taking and influence-peddling that have already discredited former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Wolfgang Schaeuble, head of the CDU's parliamentary delegation for a decade and Kohl's handpicked successor as party leader, was pushed out by angry colleagues a day after the party was hit with a staggering $20-million fine for falsifying campaign finance documents.
Schaeuble's departure offers a chance for the beleaguered conservatives to bring unblemished figures to the fore in hopes of recovering the trust of voters. Polls indicate that the CDU has lost at least 30 percentage points to fall far behind the left-of-center Social Democrats of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
With little more than a week before the important Feb. 27 state election in Schleswig-Holstein, Schaeuble's belated ouster seemed unlikely to arrest the party's free fall in time for it to wage a credible challenge in that northern state, which only two months ago it was expected to win easily.
In a prepared resignation statement delivered to a packed audience of journalists and fellow CDU members at parliamentary headquarters, Schaeuble, 57, acknowledged that the ever-lengthening chain of accusations and changed stories has thrown his party into its worst political crisis since the Nazi era.
"But the crisis of the CDU should not be allowed to become a crisis of our democracy," Schaeuble stated, vowing that the party will eventually recover the leading role it played in post-World War II politics.
"I have come to realize that without a visible new start, including with personnel, the union will be unable to free itself from the clutches of this crisis," Schaeuble said. "To facilitate this new start, I have decided to give up the parliamentary leadership not in May, as planned, but now, so that a new leadership can be elected."
Schaeuble also said he will meet with senior party officials Friday to discuss the transition to a new national party leader.
The CDU's 44-year-old budget policy advisor and vice chairman, Friedrich Merz, was widely seen as likely to replace Schaeuble as party leader in parliament when a new hierarchy is elected Tuesday. But speculation about who will be put forward at a convention in April to take Schaeuble's national party leadership was less focused.
General Secretary Angela Merkel, 45, has shown herself to be a capable crisis manager amid the scandal, in which she appears to have played no part. But as a woman and an eastern German in this still-patriarchal and psychologically divided country, she faces towering barriers of tradition.
Other figures mentioned by German media and political analysts as contenders are Bernhard Vogel and Kurt Biedenkopf, both 69 and governors of the eastern states of Thuringia and Saxony, respectively. But either, it is assumed, would have only a caretaker role while the dust from the shake-up settles.
Schaeuble had earlier served Kohl as chief of staff and interior minister. In the latter office, he played a key role in negotiating the reunification treaty with East Germany in 1990. Later that year, a psychologically disturbed attacker shot Schaeuble at a political rally, paralyzing him from the chest down and confining him to a wheelchair.
Some political rivals, including Schroeder, were respectful and circumspect in their reactions to the resignation just four weeks after Kohl was forced to step down as honorary party chairman for refusing to cooperate with fellow party members to overcome the crisis.
"These events are not without tragedy," a somber Schroeder told journalists, praising Schaeuble "for taking this necessary step in an uncommonly difficult situation."
Wolfgang Gerhardt, the leader of the Free Democrats, who share power with the CDU in some state government coalitions, reminded Germans that Schaeuble had made laudable contributions to the country and was "sacrificing himself" for the good of the party.
But the general secretary of Schroeder's party, Franz Muentefering, noted that Schaeuble was leaving only after "house-to-house combat" in the party hierarchy. CDU leaders had met Tuesday night and late into Wednesday morning after the $20-million fine was announced, with many members demanding Schaeuble's resignation.