Berlin (CNSNews.com) – Divisions in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fragile coalition widened this week following a much-criticized decision to move her embattled domestic intelligence chief to the interior ministry – technically a promotion – instead of heeding calls to remove him outright.
Merkel announced the decision to move Hans-Georg Maassen from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) on Tuesday, speaking alongside the leaders of her two coalition partners, Andrea Nahles of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Horst Seehofer of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union (CSU).
The move followed two weeks of pressure from the SPD after Maassen publicly questioned the authenticity of a video appearing to show far-right demonstrators in Chemnitz chasing a foreign man through the streets. The controversial protests erupted after an Iraqi and a Syrian were arrested on suspicion of murdering a German man.
The CSU, however, supported Maassen, causing a dilemma for Merkel. (The CSU is sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.)
In an apparent bid to avoid damaging coalition unity, the chancellor went for a compromise option, but while the CSU approved, some SPD members are angry.
“If the working basis of this coalition is only the well-being of the CSU, then the SPD must clearly question its meaning,” SPD youth wing director Kevin Kühnert told Rheinische Post on Wednesday. “Why should we still remain part of this coalition?”
Contributing to the dismay, Maassen’s new senior position in the interior ministry – which is led by CSU’s Horst Seehofer who is Interior Minister – comes with a higher salary then his previous one.
Kühnert accused Maassen of defending “right-wing conspiracy theories” by questioning the video’s veracity. Such a person, he said, is clearly not suitable for public office and should be retired altogether.
Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, told euronews conflicts between the coalition parties would continue, with divisions continuing to bubble under the surface, with Merkel managing less and less to maintain an image of a functional coalition.
While some SPD members are questioning the value of remaining in the coalition, Nahles argued in favor of doing so, saying on Twitter there was no need to “sacrifice” the government simply because Seehofer had hired an unsuitable civil servant.
Still polls hint at further trouble ahead for Merkel and her CSU ally. Ahead of regional elections scheduled for October 14, the CSU appears to be at risk of losing its long-held absolute majority in its home state, Bavaria, further diluting Merkel’s coalition.
The CSU has been losing ground to the far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – whose members participated in the anti-immigrant protests in Chemnitz, and which strongly supported Maassen, calling him a hero for speaking the “truth.”
Seehofer had hoped that, by moving Maassen to his ministry – rather than see him leave public service altogether – he could save face for his party before the elections.
His hard line stance on immigration is also seen as a bid to consolidate CSU support – especially in the face of challenges from the anti-immigration AfD.
Seehofer has long been at odds with Merkel over immigration policy, and previously threatened to independently deport rejected asylum-seekers from Bavaria.
However, his party’s popularity has steadily declined.
According to aggregate data by Poll of Polls, CSU support dropped from 47.7 percent in April to 36 percent on September 10. The AfD saw a slight uptick, from 12 to 13 percent, in the same period.
Meanwhile at the national level Merkel’s CDU remains at a historic low, but relatively stable point for the time being. Aggregate data shows it has dipped two points to 30 percent since April, while the SPD remains steady at 18 percent. The AfD climbed from 14 to 18 percent nationally. The next federal election will be held no later than October 2021.