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article imageMerkel govt finds new post for spy chief to defuse coalition row

By Frank ZELLER (AFP)     Sep 23, 2018 in Politics

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her two coalition allies Sunday reached an agreement to resolve a festering row centred on Germany's outgoing domestic spy chief.

They agreed that Hans-Georg Maassen, 55, who leaves the post as chief of the BfV security agency, be appointed special representative for internal security, said the chancellery.

Crucially, the new job in the interior ministry does not come with a raise in pay or status, after an earlier proposal to give Maassen the more senior post of state secretary had sparked a public outcry.

The dispute centres on controversial comments by Maassen that appeared to play down the severity of far-right racist mob violence in the eastern city of Chemnitz last month.

Merkel's junior partners, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), then strongly pushed for Maassen to be fired, while hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the conservative Bavarian CSU had defended the spy master as a competent bureaucrat beyond reproach.

A shaky compromise deal reached last Tuesday -- to shift Maassen to the more senior and better paid state secretary post -- had sparked even more anger and ridicule and heightened pressure on SPD party chief Andrea Nahles for accepting a bad deal.

With the scandal entering a second round, the three party leaders met Sunday to resolve the tricky issue.

The dispute rocking the government of the EU's top economy has, many observers said, bordered on political farce and showed the weakness of Merkel as the leader of a loveless three-party alliance she had to cobble together for her fourth term.

- Trust badly shaken -

An Emnid poll for Bild am Sonntag newspaper found that 67 percent of respondents no longer believed the three party chiefs still shared a common basis of trust, although a narrow majority also rejected the options of new elections now.

All major parties suffered in last September's election as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party took millions of their votes, capitalising on public fears and anger over immigration.

Since Merkel's decision three years ago to allow a mass influx of mostly Muslim migrants and refugees, the issue has come to dominate political debate at the expense of other policy matters.

Tensions flared again last month after a fatal knife attack in Chemnitz -- in which the top suspects are asylum seekers -- triggered xenophobic mob violence that shocked Germany and the world.

Merkel deplored the unrest, but Maassen soon contradicted her and questioned whether any "hunting down" of foreigners had taken place, and whether amateur video footage of the confrontations had been fake.

While his comments were cheered by the far right, the three opposition parties and the SPD demanded he be fired for meddling in politics.

The main beneficiary of the row has been the AfD, which calls Merkel a "traitor" and rails against "establishment parties".

The Emnid poll said the AfD would garner 16 percent of votes if elections were held now.

Merkel's CDU/CSU conservative block scored 28 percent and the SPD 17 percent-- giving their shaky coalition a total of 45 percent, its lowest ever support in the survey.

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