Angela Merkel found it hard to accept the departure of her friend and ally Annette Schavan. But the plagiarism controversy around the education minister would have hurt Merkel's campaign for the upcoming election.
Coming Tuesday (14.02.2013) Johanna Wanka will be sworn in as Germany's new Education Minister. Her predecessor, Annette Schavan, will be standing next to her to accept her resignation documents. It is the abrupt and bitter end of a successful political career: Schavan stumbled over mistakes that she made in her doctoral thesis some 33 years ago. When the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf stripped her of her doctorate for deliberate deception, her days as minister for education and research were numbered.
For 10 years the 57-year old conservative Christian Democrat was culture minister in Baden-Wurttemberg, until in 2005 Chancellor Merkel brought her to Berlin to join her cabinet. Since then, many of the other ministers came and went, but Schavan always stood on solid ground. No other politician has held that office for such a long time. She has also always been close to the chancellor, and she in turn has treated Schavan as a confidante. And this means a lot, given that the close circle of trust around Angela Merkel is seen as rather small.
A resignation for political reasons
Schavan's resignation is therefore more than just a change of staff at the helm of one of the ministries. It is in fact a real loss for the chancellor. Merkel said she was very sad to see her political and personal friend resign. "She's losing a partner who never was in competition with her," Hans-Georg Wehling, a political scientist with the University of Tübingen, told DW. "That's why Merkel could always accept her advice without fearing second thoughts on Schavan's side."
But the discussion about Schavan's credibility as education minister had become a burden for the government. The original plan had been a different one: Merkel was to go into the election campaign in September with Schavan at her side.
It is therefore no surprise that Merkel did not at all mention the plagiarism affair while Schavan chose to vehemently defend herself, saying "I have neither copied nor deceived." She only resigned in order to prevent her political office from suffering under the weight of the controversy. She has expressed intent to sue her university in court, and also wants to keep her mandate as member of Germany's parliament.
Regret and respect
When the country's president, Joachim Gauck, accepts the resignation on Thursday, he will find words to honor Schavan's achievement – as have many politicians from Merkel's governing Christian Democrats. They have all lauded Schavan as a successful minister who they say has strengthened Germany's position as a country that excels in research.
Schavan's decision to quit her post was widely accepted with respect. Even opposition politicians expressed their support. "Schavan is a competent and highly respected colleague whom I feel very sorry for," said Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the opposition Social Democrats.
Criticism was less directed at Schavan directly but rather at the poor performance of the government in the first weeks of 2013. The year began with a discussion about economics minister Philipp Rösler, continued with several election defeats in regional polls and now with the Schavan resignation has reached a new low. "The year couldn't have started worse for the government," the Social Democratic Party's Andrea Nahles said.
Bad time for a cabinet reshuffle
Chairman of the parliamentary group of the Green party, Jürgen Trittin, took an aim at Schavan's successor. Johanna Wanka until now was culture minister in Lower Saxony - a position she would have lost as her party got voted out of office in recent regional elections. "Apparently an election defeat is enough of a qualification to make it into Merkel's cabinet," Trittin said.
Political scientist Jürgen Falter has a somewhat more positive view of the situation: Merkel has quickly found a "convincing candidate," he told DW. Wanka was qualified thanks to her past job as rector of Merseburg Universtiy and as chairperson of the Kultusministerkonferenz, an assembly of the ministers for education of each of Germany's states. "It is the right person at the right time," Falter believes.
In the eight months remaining until Germany's upcoming national election, there will be little Wanka can to leave a mark as Education Minister. But for Merkel, a campaign start without any burdens or controversies is crucial. And so she had to accept Schavan's resignation – otherwise it would have been too easy a target for criticism by the opposition in the run-up to September's vote.