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Merkel government under fire over spy chief deal

Jefferson Chase (Berlin)
September 19, 2018

Angela Merkel's governing coalition has decided to sack its controversial head of domestic intelligence by transfering him to a higher post. With no successor on the horizon, the move has drawn jeers around the country.

Former intelligence chief Hans-Georg Maassen
Image: picture-alliance/S. Stache

One day after the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, was sacked and then promoted, the government is struggling to justify its seemingly contradictory actions.

On Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of her party's two coalition partners — Andrea Nahles of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Horst Seehofer of Bavaria's conservative CSU — agreed that BfV head Hans-Georg Maassen would go. His dismissal came amid fears that he harbors sympathy for the far right, fueled by controversial remarks he made about the recent unrest in Chemnitz surrounding migrants. 

But the coalition hedged its bets by promoting Maassen to Interior Ministry undersecretary at a higher pay grade. That called forth disbelief among politicians and ordinary voters alike. It hasn't helped that Seehofer, in his function as German interior minister, has yet to set a date by which Maassen would be replaced.

"I myself don't have any names in mind," Seehofer told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday, adding that a successor would be appointed "soon."

The personnel move followed roughly two weeks of pressure from the SPD after Maassen cast doubt on the authenticity of a video that appeared to show far-right demonstrators in Chemnitz bellowing xenophobic slogans and chasing a man they believed to be a foreigner through the streets. That skepticism contradicted a statement by Merkel herself, who reportedly ordered that Maassen leave the BfV.

Nahles justified her support for the Maassen compromise in a tweet late on Wednesday afternoon by citing a series of reforms the SPD has pushed through in the current coalition and a number of global crises that, she argued, required a stable German government.

"I think Seehofer's decision to take on Maassen as an undersecretary in the interior ministry is wrong, but I'm firmly convinced that the SPD should not sacrifice this government because Mr. Seehofer has hired a civil servant we consider unsuitable," Nahles wrote.

Later on Wednesday, Merkel said that it was "necessary that all coalition parties have trust in the president of the BfV. This trust was not there in some parts of the coalition." Therefore, Merkel said, it was important that Maassen had no control of the BfV "neither as president of the BfV nor from within the Interior Ministry. I think this was an important decision, and the right one."

Meanwhile, at his press conference Seehofer, who wanted to retain his fellow conservative as BfV head all along, ducked a question about how the government planned to sell the compromise to the German public. He did say, however, that the coalition wanted to agree "to get beyond this and keep on working."  

But there is little enthusiasm for getting back to business as usual within the general public — or indeed much of the SPD itself.

Kevin Kühnert
The SPD youth organization, the Jusos, is outraged by the promotion dealImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

SPD members question Merkel coalition

The Maassen decision opened up old rifts within the SPD over the current coalition government with Merkel' conservatives Christian Democrats (CDU) and the CSU. Despite Nahles' defense of staying in the coalition despite the deal, prominent Social Democrats, including the party's youth leader, fumed at the arrangement, calling it "a slap in the face" and asking: "Why should we remain part of this coalition?"

Others are seeking to claim victory for the SPD in forcing out Maassen while acknowledging that the general public won't understand what one ranking member admits was "party-political tactical maneuvering." Many are enraged that an SPD interior ministry undersecretary is making way to accommodate Maassen. Some even say the deal is tantamount to political suicide.

"The SPD is not on edge of the abyss," tweeted deputy regional SPD leader Hilde Mattheis. "It's one step further than that."

This internal dissent is more bad news for a party mired in record low numbers in public opinion polls and illustrates the vicious circle Social Democrats are caught in at the moment. Every compromise with Merkel and their conservative coalition partners risks further turning off their own electoral base, but directly challenging conservatives could scupper the coalition and trigger fresh elections at a time when they party is stuck in its historic doldrums.

And an unstable SPD is worrisome not just within the party, but also to Merkel, who needs the Social Democrats to continue her government.

'On the free market people get fired'

Both the press and the political opposition have heaped scorn on the Maassen compromise deal, but the greater problem for both the chancellor and her government is how it's playing in the public at large. 

Hardly had the deal been announced on early Tuesday evening, than Twitter lit up with jokes about Maassen soon being promoted to chancellor.

On Berlin's Friedrichstrasse, a short distance from the Reichstag and the Chancellor's Office, the reaction of passersby was no more positive the morning after Maassen's simultaneous dismissal and promotion.

"It's one bad decision after another in the government right now — he should go," one man told Deutsche Welle.

"More money for nothing — not bad," agreed another man. "In the next election, the SPD is going to get spanked. They should have chucked him out. On the free market, people like that get fired. If you cock things up, you have to go. It's that simple."

But the SPD aren't the only ones being held responsible for the Maassen affair. Conservatives, who are also way down in public opinion polls, are attracting their share of the blame — and that comes ahead of a very important regional election.

Hans-Georg Maaßen and Horst Seehofer
Seehofer (right) managed to keep from firing Maassen outright, but he could pay a political priceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Conservative fates in the balance, too

The government's ambiguous decision on Maassen has also put the pressure on his boss in both his current and future jobs, Horst Seehofer.

There is growing speculation that the CSU head and interior minister's career could be over if Bavarian conservatives get hammered in regional elections there on October 14. The CSU, which is used to winning absolute majorities in southern Germany, is currently only polling at 35 percent. 

Read more: Merkel and Bavaria: What Germany's regional election means for the chancellor

By retaining Maassen in the interior ministry, Seehofer hoped to save face after being forced to remove him as domestic intelligence chief. But it also left Seehofer open to ridicule for rewarding a subordinate for poor job performance. And a member of Merkel's previous government was only too happy to oblige. 

"Maassen gets promoted for his failure in office," tweeted former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD acidly. "If disloyalty and incompetence are the new criteria for a career, then Seehofer has a good chance of becoming the next UN Secretary General."

If Seehofer goes and the CSU decide the party needs to lurch further to the right to shore up its own electoral support, it would put further strain on Merkel's coalition. As is her wont, Merkel stayed above the fray, at least in public, during the Maassen affair. But it is unclear how long this strategy will suffice to hold an increasingly brittle government together.

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