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

Domestic spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen questioned whether footage showing far-right hooligans attacking foreigners in the streets was authentic © dpa/AFP/File / Bernd von Jutrczenka

Berlin, Germany, Sep 18 – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government was to decide Tuesday whether to 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 last week huddled to discuss the fate of Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the BfV intelligence service — but postponed the tricky issue until a new crisis meeting scheduled for 1400 GMT Tuesday.

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

The attacks, which sparked revulsion in Germany and abroad, were sparked by a fatal stabbing in which an Iraqi was identified as the chief suspect.

Days later, Maassen questioned the authenticity of amateur video footage showing the violence and voiced doubt that racists had indeed “hunted down” foreigners.

Maassen’s comments, including his speculation that the footage was “deliberate misinformation”, directly contradicted the stance of Merkel, who had deplored the xenophobic attacks and the “hatred in the streets”.

SPD leaders then demanded Merkel fire the spy chief for political meddling, and pointed to his repeated meetings with leaders of the far-right and anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

– Deep chasms –

Maassen has rejected accusations that he has supported AfD lawmakers with early access to unpublished data and advice on how to avoid surveillance by his Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).

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There is a deep rift between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer © AFP/File / John MACDOUGALL

Social Democrat leader Andrea Nahles has insisted Maassen must go and SPD youth wing leader Kevin Kuehnert, 29, mockingly tweeted that he should either explain his conspiracy theory or “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.

Less than three months on, and 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.

– ‘Mother of all problems’ –

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 now decided to let Maassen go, quoting unnamed coalition sources.

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

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Merkel last week said only that “the coalition will not break up” over the issue, a claim she repeated on Monday.

Amid the controversy, business daily Handelsblatt commented that the Merkel government seemed to be picking up where it had left things before the parliamentary summer break — in deep discord.

“There is so much arguing, brawling and fighting that the question once more arises: how long will this government, which has only been in office for half a year, last?”

News website Spiegel Online criticised Merkel’s silence on the Maassen issue so far, charging that “the domestic political crisis … is very much a consequence of the fact that Merkel is in the final phase of her chancellorship, that her power is fading”.


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