The current conflict over the head of the domestic security agency has again exposed tensions in Germany’s grand coalition, elevating what would be a relatively minor personnel question into a government dilemma.
Coalition leaders met late Thursday to discuss the fate of Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, known by its German acronym BfV, which monitors extremist organizationsthat threaten Germany’s democratic institutions. They ended up putting off a decision until next week.
Mr. Maassen displayed what many viewed as sympathy for the far-right populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), by questioning whether the violent anti-immigrant riots in the wake of a murder in Chemnitz actually took place.
Mr. Maassen’s case and its relation to the ongoing refugee crisis in Germany laid bare the strains inherent in a government coalition pairing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right alliance with the center-left Social Democrats. The more conservative elements in Ms. Merkel’s corner, represented by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, defend Mr. Maassen, while the Social Democrats, the SPD, are calling for his head.
“Merkel must act now”
It is this tension that has turned the Maassen case into a deadlock. “For the SPD party leadership, it is absolutely clear that measures must be taken,” Lars Klingbeil, the party’s general secretary, said. “Merkel must act now.”
The coalition has been endangered before – last summer, Mr. Seehofer insisted on turning back refugees at the border in defiance of EU rules and Ms. Merkel’s commitment to them. The new rift may once again threaten the coalition itself and Ms. Merkel’s position as chancellor.
Ms. Merkel’s conservative alliance and the Social Democrats disagreement over Mr. Maassen is symptomatic of a deeper distrust that has crept into the coalition. It is keeping the government from getting on with the business of governing and gives added momentum to the AfD by showing how deep the rift runs in Germany over the influx of immigrants. The issue continues to upend domestic politics.
Information leak or parliamentary briefing?
“Anyone who plays down right-wing extremist attacks harms democracy,” SPD deputy chairman Ralf Stegner said. “Ms. Merkel can no longer ignore that. She must end the theater over Mr. Maassen.”
The drama grew this week when a leading politician from the AfD said Mr. Maassen, had given him information from the agency’s annual report weeks before it was made public. The information in question regarded the scope of Islamic activity in Germany and the BfV’s budget.
Mr. Maassen denied that he had illegally leaked the information. Rather, he said, he was following the express wish of the interior ministry to brief all the parties in parliament on the security situation regarding Islamic terrorism. The AfD politician who said he got unpublished information is Stephan Brandner, chairman of the judiciary committee in parliament.
This discrepancy could mean someone is lying, but nonetheless, political commentators worry that the SPD is taking a big risk by pushing the matter so far. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible the SPD leadership would escalate the conflict to this extent,” Berlin university professor Oskar Niedermayer said.
Parties painted into a corner
Ms. Merkel cannot herself fire Mr. Maassen. She would have to compel Mr. Seehofer to do so, and that could prove difficult. One option would be to fire Mr. Seehofer as well, Mr. Niedermayer said.
No one thinks Ms. Merkel is ready to again risk a break with Mr. Seehofer, who heads the CSU, the Bavarian ally for her Christian Democrats (CDU). In that case, if the SPD maintains its stance on Mr. Maassen, it would have to withdraw from the coalition. Voters would undoubtedly punish the party for such a move in upcoming state elections or in any snap national election. The SPD has already lost considerable support and now polls behind the AfD.
A way out of the dilemma would be for Mr. Seehofer to seize on the report of a premature release of information to dismiss Mr. Maassen without losing face. But even this could lead to a backlash in the CSU, which is already polling a disastrous 35 percent in next month’s state election in Bavaria while giving further support to the anti-Merkel forces in the CDU.
The summer lull may have conveyed a false sense of security about the government, but the sudden escalation of the Maassen case shows the coalition is as fragile as ever.