These are tough times for Joschka Fischer. Germany's most popular politician is facing stiff criticism for his responsibility in an illegal immigration affair. His fate depends on the outcome of a raging political war.
Even Fischer doesn't know what lies ahead
For the past few days, Germany's politicians seem only capable of discussing two things.
One: How responsible is Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer for a visa policy that let thousands of people into the country illegally? And two: when will he appear before a parliamentary committee to face opposition scrutiny?
Fischer, who has held the title of Germany's most popular politician for the past few years, is facing a credibility challenge virtually unprecedented in his career. Opposition politicians charge him with looking the other way while German embassies and consulates around the world issued visas to what they say was "hundreds of thousands" of illegal immigrants, including prostitutes and human traffickers.
The affair, whose roots go back to 2000, but has heated up in recent weeks, has already claimed his deputy and inner-party political rival Ludger Volmer. Though Fischer has accepted full responsibility, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, Christian Social Union and the Free Democratic Party continue to call for his head.
Has chancellor's backing
They want him to appear before a parliamentary hearing as soon as this week or next week. On Thursday, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder defended his vice-chancellor and said he wouldn't let him testify before mid-April.
The Chancellor stands firmly behind his foreign minister
"I don't know what the reason for (an earlier appearance at a parliamentary hearing) would be," he told the television station NDR. "But with the opposition, you never know. The foreign minister has without question my trust and the trust of the coalition."
He said he would comment on the accusations after the committee has finished its work.
Government: 1 Opposition: 0
The 13-head committee in parliament started work on Thursday. By all accounts, Fischer and the coalition government were the day's winners. Participants told news agencies that evidence presented to the committee showed that the foreign ministry reacted properly to reports of visa misuse in 2001 and 2002.
Following complaints to the ministry that it was too strict in dispensing visas in decisions concerning family reunions and sickness, Volmer apparently issued a decree that, when in doubt, embassy workers should decide in favor of the applicant.
A flood of applicants followed. In 2001, the number of visas approved by the embassy in Kiev, Ukraine alone reached 400,000. It was a large number, considering the 190 German embassies worldwide issue only 3 million visas each year on average.
A political duel
In recent weeks, anecdotal evidence of human traffickers and prostitutes that benefited from the lax rules has dominated the German media and mounted pressure on Fischer and his responsibility in the affair. Opposition politicians on Thursday said the foreign ministry might have even violated rules laid out in the European Union's Schengen Treaty, which opened up borders among EU states.
How dangerous this all is for Fischer's political fate will only be decided after the committee finishes its work. Opposition politicians would love to have Fischer cook on the hot seat ahead of elections in the large state of North-Rhine Westphalia in May. The government has so far refused to release him to the committee earlier than mid-April, and most observers expect them to hold out longer.
You really love me
Along with the good news from the first day of hearings, the foreign minister can go to sleep tonight assured that he has maintained his title. Polls revealed that only 24 percent of Germans think he should resign. A full 65 percent want him to stay on.