World News

Merkel Emerges Weaker, and the Far Right Stronger, After Latest Bout

Posted September 19, 2018 4:29 p.m. EDT

BERLIN — For nearly two weeks Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to find a way to fire her own domestic intelligence chief, a man who had publicly contradicted her and become the darling of the far right for questioning the authenticity of a video showing angry white men chasing an immigrant.

But she couldn’t — not without risking the collapse of her fragile government.

Hans-Georg Maassen, the rebellious spy, has powerful friends, among them his immediate boss, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Bavarian conservatives and one of Merkel’s pricklier coalition partners.

Instead of firing Maassen, Merkel had to allow Seehofer to promote him. Maassen will get a pay rise of about 2,500 euros a month, nearly $3,000.

“You couldn’t make it up,” said Andrea Römmele, a professor of political science at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

If the episode shows anything, analysts said in the aftermath, it is that Merkel is growing more feeble even as the far right — in parliament, online and on the streets — is getting stronger.

The chancellor’s inability to act decisively has exposed the spectacular weakening of a leader who not long ago was seen as a key defender of the liberal order. That view was cemented by her decision in 2015 to welcome to Germany hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere who were not wanted by neighboring European countries.

Three years later, as a nationalist and populist backlash is spreading, Merkel has so little authority left that many here wonder how much longer she can last.

“Merkel was an authority at home and abroad,” Römmele said. “She stood up to Trump, negotiated peace deals and passed the laws she wanted to pass. She was the queen of consensus.”

“Now she can’t even fire the head of an agency,” Römmele added. Six months into her fourth term, “she has become a lame duck.”

Ever since an inconclusive election last September, Merkel has stumbled from one political crisis to another. In the election, her party saw a significant decline in voter support and a far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, entered parliament for the first time in more than 60 years.

In the end it took six months to form a government, an unwieldy one straddling left and right, with Merkel perched precariously at its center.

That government almost fell apart in the summer, when Seehofer, the interior minister, challenged the chancellor over her immigration policies and demanded the reintroduction of border controls with Austria.

That earlier episode was just a foretaste of how the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has been using its toehold in parliament — where it now has the megaphone of being the leading opposition party — to reorder German politics.

Seehofer’s party, the Christian Social Union, has been veering sharply to the right ahead of state elections in Bavaria next month, trying to fend off a challenge from the AfD, which is on course to deprive it of its absolute majority.

But there was also the larger and more important question for Germany of Maassen’s own political sympathies, and whether they were undermining his agency’s ability to assess links between far-right politicians and dangerous neo-Nazi groups.

In an interview with Germany’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, Bild, Maassen suggested that a widely circulated video of a dark-skinned man being chased by a number of white men, during riotous protests in Chemnitz at the end of August, was a fake.

“There is no evidence that the video circulating on the internet about this purported event is authentic,” he told Bild, adding that there were “good reasons to believe that this was a case of targeted misinformation.”

He later walked back on his claims, saying he had been “misunderstood.”

But Maassen, who has met several times with AfD politicians in recent years, had vetted and authorized the initial comments before publication. Reports that he had spoken to Seehofer before the interview intensified speculation that the two men, both longtime critics of Merkel’s migration policy, were trying to undermine the chancellor’s authority.

If Merkel thought she could quell the turmoil inside her government by moving Maassen out of his post, she was wrong.

On Wednesday, Seehofer publicly defended Maassen, saying he had his “full trust” and calling him “competent and loyal.”

Maassen, who has been promoted to undersecretary in the interior ministry, will remain in place as president of the domestic intelligence agency — the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, as it is known here — until a successor is named.

Despite Maassen’s recent comments on the protests in Chemnitz, his vast new brief will include overseeing “public security” and the federal police — though not the intelligence office, Seehofer said.

The outrage among commentators and politicians, even from within Merkel’s own camp, was widespread.

“I would like a president of the agency for the protection of the constitution of whom the enemies of the constitution are afraid,” said Peter Tauber, a conservative lawmaker.

Katrin-Göring Eckhardt of the Greens spoke of the “unbelievable jiggery-pokery” in rewarding Maassen for “disloyalty” and for “cozying up to the AfD.”

But fear of the far right — and, by extension, of new elections that would most likely strengthen it further — was one reason Merkel and her other governing partner, the Social Democrats, let Seehofer have his way.

Many also pointed out the dangerous signal the deal had sent to voters. “Ordinary people get punished for the smallest misstep and the elites get promoted,” said Jens Hacke, a political scientist at the University of Greifswald. “This message will only strengthen the AfD.” Former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called the whole episode “crazy.”

“If disloyalty and incompetence are rewarded with career jumps,” he said, “then Horst Seehofer has every chance to become U.N. secretary-general.”

But a good dose of the criticism was directed at the chancellor herself, underscoring the sense that though Merkel won the round, she was weakened in the fight.

Some inside the Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s other coalition partner, were so furious that they urged their leadership to quit the government.

“My personal pain threshold has been reached,” said Kevin Kühnert, the influential leader of the party’s youth organization. The price for staying in government, he said, “has become too high.”