Why Berlin is once again consumed by talk of a coalition collapse

It only seems like yesterday that Angela Merkel managed to drag herself out of the last political crisis that threatened her coalition. Now there is renewed talk of a split at the top of German politics.

Why Berlin is once again consumed by talk of a coalition collapse
Photo: DPA

What is it all about this time?

The junior partner in the coalition government, the Social Democrats (SPD), are calling for the head of Hans-Georg Maaßen, the top man at Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, to resign.

Earlier this month Maaßen made some controversial statements on xenophobic unrest in Chemnitz, leading critics to accuse him of speaking out of turn.

Among other things, the head of the BfV disputed the authenticity of a video which seemed to show far-right protesters attacking foreign-looking people on the streets of the eastern city. He later qualified the comment by saying that newspapers and politicians had been irresponsible in reporting on the video before its veracity could be established.

The Social Democrats took exception to the remarks, saying that Maaßen was playing into the hands of the far-right. Opposition politicians also said that the spy chief was irresponsibly downplaying the Chemnitz unrest, which made headlines around the world.

Now the SPD have agreed to a meeting with the coalition partners the CDU and the CSU to clarify Maaßen’s future.

At the weekend, SPD leader Andrea Nahles showed herself in a pugnacious mood, telling supporters that “Mr Maaßen needs to go, and I tell you that he will go.”

The SPD party secretary Lars Klingbeil also made clear that his party will settle for nothing less than the sacking of the spy chief. “I am very confident that the result will be that Mr Maaßen will have to step down,” he told broadcaster ZDF.

But elements of the conservative parties in the government appear to be in no mood to give in to the SPD on the issue.

“It’s about time they shut their mouths,” CDU deputy leader Thomas Strobl told Bild. “[The SPD] should stop all the navel gazing and start doing a proper job of governing the country.”

Alexander Mitsch, head of an influential conservative pressure group inside the CDU, said that “Ms. Merkel cannot submit to this left wing pressure. It would be fatal if she sacrificed Mr. Maaßen in order to hold onto her own power.”

Maaßen’s boss, interior minister Horst Seehofer, has consistently backed him.

According to a report in Die Welt on Monday, Merkel herself is preparing to wield the axe on Maaßen. Many have interpreted Maaßen’s statement as a direct attack on the Chancellor, who referenced the video when condemning the unrest in Chemnitz.

Die Welt reported that Merkel has decided that the spy chief overstepped his authority by weighing into the world of daily politics.

But the Chancellor is clearly caught in what the Germans call a Zwickmühle (Catch-22). If she gives the spy boss his marching orders, she risks a new fight with her combustible interior minister. If she defends him, the SPD could decide to walk away from the government. 

What does this mean for the coalition?

The dispute over the spy chief has led to renewed speculation that the coalition government could be on the point of collapse.

Klingbeil refused to give a direct answer on ZDF when asked if the SPD were prepared to walk away from the government if they don’t get their way.

Merkel and CSU leader Horst Seehofer have also faced questions about the future of the coalition in recent days, although both have stated their confidence that the government will survive this latest test of its strength.

This isn’t the first time that the media have speculated on the end of the coalition within the half a year since it was formed. Back in June the conflict was between the conservative parties, with Seehofer almost causing a split between his party and Merkel’s CDU over border controls. On that occasion Seehofer momentarily quit his job, before swiftly rowing back on the drastic move.

The coalition government is seen as particularly fragile, as it took Merkel five months to form it. The SPD had initially been reluctant to join another Merkel coalition after taking a hammering at the polls in last September’s national election.

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