BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s junior coalition partners demanded the removal of Germany’s domestic intelligence chief on Thursday following his much-criticized comments about recent far-right protests in the eastern city of Chemnitz.
Hans-Georg Maassen‘s future as the head of the BfV intelligence agency has created new strains in Merkel’s six-month-old coalition.
The center-left Social Democrats, the junior governing party, called for him to go after Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told parliament Maassen still has his confidence.
Merkel, Seehofer and Social Democrat leader Andrea Nahles were meeting at the chancellery Thursday afternoon to discuss the spat, which comes only 2½ months after a crisis over migration policy that briefly threatened the coalition.
The killing late last month of a German man, for which an Iraqi and a Syrian have been arrested, prompted days of anti-migrant protests in Chemnitz that at times turned violent.
In comments to the mass-circulation Bild daily last week, Maassen questioned the authenticity of a video showing protesters chasing down and attacking a foreigner. He also said his agency had no reliable evidence that foreigners were “hunted” in the streets — a term Merkel had used.
Maassen told Seehofer, his immediate boss, about his doubts before going public but didn’t inform the chancellery. Although they are conservative allies, Seehofer and Merkel have sparred on and off about migrant policy for three years. A dispute between the pair in June briefly threatened to bring down the government.
On Wednesday evening, Maassen was grilled by two parliamentary committees.
“He explained comprehensively, and from my point of view convincingly, the way he acted,” Seehofer told lawmakers. Maassen debunked “conspiracy theories” and “convincingly took a stance against right-wing radicalism,” he added.
Merkel doesn’t appear keen to make an issue of Maassen’s remarks, telling parliament Wednesday that a discussion about semantics isn’t helpful. But the Social Democrats, who are struggling in polls, said Seehofer’s decision to keep Maassen in place couldn’t be the last word.
Senior lawmaker Eva Hoegl told lawmakers that the security services must enjoy “our unrestricted confidence, and if there is even the slightest doubt about that, there is a problem — so we should act differently here.” She and others said Maassen had failed to restore confidence in his leadership.
The party’s general secretary, Lars Klingbeil, later increased the pressure, writing on Twitter that “for the Social Democrats’ leadership, it is completely clear that Maassen must go. Merkel must act now.”
The head of the Social Democrats’ youth wing, who fought unsuccessfully earlier this year to keep the party out of Merkel’s government, suggested that it should quit the coalition if Maassen is kept on.
But Hoegl told Deutschlandfunk radio that “the Social Democrats are, of course, not going to leave the coalition over Mr. Maassen.”
The coalition, which took office in March, so far has been remarkable mostly for squabbling.
The three parties in it all performed badly in last year’s election, which also saw the far-right Alternative for Germany enter parliament. And Seehofer’s Christian Social Union party faces a tough test in a Bavarian state election in mid-October.
By GEIR MOULSON, Associated Press