Fate of German spy chief a new stress test for Merkel government

Telegram från AFP / Omni
18 sept. 2018, 16.43

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government was to decide Tuesday whether to keep on or fire the domestic spy chief as an explosive row over immigration and the far-right once more rocks her fragile coalition.

The controversy has sparked the second major stress test for a weakened Merkel's fourth-term government forged half a year ago between her centre-right CDU, its conservative Bavarian sister party CSU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

The three party chiefs resumed crisis talks at 1400 GMT which they had started and postponed last week on the fate of Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the BfV intelligence service.

Maassen, 55, became the focus of heated controversy after he raised doubts about the veracity of reports of far-right hooligans and neo-Nazis randomly attacking immigrants in the eastern city of Chemnitz in late August.

Bild daily and news agency DPA reported, citing unnamed coalition sources, that the row could potentially be defused with a face-saving compromise, by nudging Maassen out of the BfV top job and instead giving him a senior post in the interior ministry.

The far-right attacks, which sparked revulsion in Germany and abroad, were sparked by a fatal stabbing of a German man over which police are holding a Syrian suspect and searching for an Iraqi man, after a court freed another initial Iraqi suspect Tuesday.

Days after the unrest, Maassen questioned the authenticity of amateur video footage showing street violence and voiced doubt that racists had indeed "hunted down" foreigners -- comments that directly contradicted Merkel, who had deplored the xenophobic attacks and "hatred in the streets".

SPD leaders -- as well as the opposition Greens, Free Democrats and Linke parties -- have demanded the resignation or sacking of the spy chief for political meddling, and pointed to his repeated meetings with leaders of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Whatever Maassen's true political leanings, the issue has quickly turned him into a martyr of Merkel haters and the far-right.

The AfD's Alice Weidel wrote on Facebook that "anyone who criticises Merkel's illegal immigration policy is mercilessly put through the wringer by the mainstream parties".

Maassen has rejected accusations that he has supported AfD lawmakers with early access to unpublished data and advice on how to avoid surveillance by his Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).

Social Democrat leader Andrea Nahles has charged that Maassen had "provided material for right-wing conspiracy theorists" while SPD youth wing leader Kevin Kuehnert, 29, mockingly urged him to "throw in his tin foil hat".

However, Maassen has received the backing of his immediate boss, the CSU's hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who has for three years been Merkel's nemesis within the ruling grand coalition.

Seehofer, a harsh critic of Merkel's 2015 decision to allow a mass influx of migrants and refugees, had in July brought the government to the brink of collapse with his threat to shutter national borders to asylum seekers.

With that bitter dispute barely papered over, the conflict over Maassen's fate once more highlights the deep chasms within Merkel's coalition.

On one level, both major parties, the CDU and SPD, are distrustful partners stuck in a political marriage of convenience after the AfD, a one-time fringe party, poached millions of their voters in last year's elections.

But the rift is deepest between Merkel and Seehofer, whose own political future hangs in the balance as his CSU braces for potentially massive losses to the AfD in Bavarian state elections next month.

Last week Seehofer labelled the migration issue "the mother of all problems" in German politics -- a comment read by many as a veiled reference to Merkel's nickname "Mutti", or Mummy.

Die Welt daily reported Monday that Merkel had decided to let Maassen go, quoting unnamed coalition sources.

According to the paper, this could have wider political ramifications: Maassen reportedly told a closed-door meeting of conservative lawmakers "Horst Seehofer told me that if I fall, he falls too".

Merkel and Seehofer have for days declined to comment on the controversy publicly, other than to insist that the coalition will not break up over the issue.