German Coalition’s Future at Stake as Parties Again Try to Resolve Spymaster Affair

September 23, 2018 Updated: September 23, 2018

BERLIN—The fate of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unwieldy six-month-old government hangs in the balance as the nation’s three coalition parties seek again to resolve a dispute over Germany’s scandal-tainted spymaster.

The coalition parties agreed on Sept. 18 to transfer spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen to the interior ministry, following accusations that he harbors far-right views for questioning the authenticity of video footage showing radicals hounding migrants in the eastern city of Chemnitz.

But the compromise deal, which would put Maassen in a better-paid job, unraveled Sept. 21 when Andrea Nahles—leader of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner in Merkel’s conservative-led coalition—said it was a mistake.

Merkel and her Bavarian ally Horst Seehofer agreed to review the deal and the chancellor said the three party leaders wanted to find a sustainable solution. However, Seehofer, who is Germany’s interior minister, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the party leaders would only meet after he knew what SPD’s demands were and how conservatives could reach an agreement with the SPD.

He said Maassen was competent, had integrity, and hadn’t committed a disciplinary offense. He rejected that Maassen is right-wing, adding, “I will, therefore, not dismiss him.”

A spokesperson for Seehofer’s Bavaria-based Christian Social Union couldn’t immediately be reached. A senior Bild journalist said Seehofer’s comments had referred to the post that Maassen was due to take at the interior ministry.

‘Common Mission’

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, general secretary of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), wrote to party members to say the CDU thought the planned talks should be used “to clarify whether all coalition partners can continue to unite together behind the common mission.”

She said there must no longer be any doubt about whether the governing parties are able and willing to tackle the issues that mattered to people.

Former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel told magazine Der Spiegel, “If the grand coalition doesn’t manage to do what the people expect of it—namely stability and an ability to act—it has lost its raison d’etre.”

But Nahles told Bild am Sonntag the government wouldn’t fail due to the Maassen affair. She rejected calls from within the SPD to quit the ‘grand coalition,’ saying Germany needed a government that was capable of acting.

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz, who is Germany’s vice chancellor, told the daily Tagesspiegel that the government was elected for the entire legislative period—which runs to 2021—but added that these wouldn’t be easy years for the coalition.

Nahles had been widely criticized by SPD members for agreeing to the deal, with some calling for the party to quit the coalition. Some members praised her for admitting the mistake and seeking to correct it.

Combined support for Merkel’s CDU and Seehofer’s Christian Social Union slumped to a record low of 28 percent, an Emnid poll for BamS showed, while the far-right Alternative for Germany—which has backed Maassen—was at 16 percent, just behind the SPD on 17 percent.

By Michelle Martin

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