German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet within a few hours later tonight in Berlin with Social Democratic Party Chairman Sigmar Gabriel and Christian Social Union Chairman Horst Seehofer to defuse a crisis that threatens to unravel the working relations between the three parties of her two month old Grand Coalition government.
The political crisis seemed to come out of nowhere on Friday, when Hans-Peter Friedrich, the CSU Agriculture Minister suddenly resigned after he had been publicly identified by the SPD Bundestag leader Thomas Oppermann as the source of a leak to SPD chairman Gabriel over an impending investigation of SPD deputy Sebastian Edathy on child pornography charges.
*** A furious CSU is demanding that Oppermann resign as the price paid for his handling of the crisis, and he does seem likely to be the scandal’s next political victim. But the crisis could nevertheless spread if not handled well in the next few days, enough to embroil Gabriel himself and potentially push the SPD into a leadership crisis and, in turn, under a worst case scenario, force the SPD to withdraw from the ruling coalition. ***
*** We for now think such an unraveling of the Merkel government is a very low probability outcome, and much will depend on the agreements reached in tonight’s leadership meeting. All three want to preserve the Grand Coalition, most of all Merkel herself. But the best case outcome may be a weakened coalition, much in the same way a crisis within the Free Democrats in 2009 had weakened the Merkel-led government through the years of the Euro-crisis. ***
Ironically, the origin of the political scandal now threatening the governing coalition was a heads-up by Friedrich to the SPD’s Gabriel to help foster deeper trust between the parties during the post-election coalition negotiations last October. In his capacity as Interior Minister, Friedrich learned of an impending investigation by prosecutors in Hanover into possible child pornography charges against Edathy.
The tip was a clear breach of secrecy, but it did save the SPD from possible embarrassment because Edathy was being considered for a senior post in a Grand Coalition government. Gabriel appreciated the trust-building gesture by Friedrich, who was almost certainly not acting alone and is assumed to have cleared it with his own party leadership, including Seehofer.
Gabriel has since confirmed he informed two other unnamed SPD party leaders, one of whom was Oppermann, the SPD’s powerful leader of its Bundestag faction.
The issue was off the political radar until early last week when Edathy resigned his seat in the Bundestag, saying nothing about the looming possible criminal charges, instead citing “health reasons.” Up until then, prosecutors were building a case based on preliminary evidence Edathy was in the possession of videos and images of under-age boys they believe he had ordered online or by mail between 2005 and 2010. It was not clear, however, there would be enough for the images to be considered illegal child pornography.
But three days later, police raided his home and offices searching for evidence of the child pornography. But all they found were destroyed hard drives on his computer, and the case was now turning into an in illegal obstruction of a criminal prosecution and exploding into a full blown political crisis.
The whole sordid mess made it into the German media by Thursday and the suspicion reached a fever pitch that Edathy had been warned of the impending investigation and raid, and had been able to destroy potentially incriminating evidence. Edathy denies all accusations, but by then that was hardly the point.
The Bundestag opposition demanded an investigation, and in the course of defending a junior whip, the SPD’s Oppermann then went public on Friday that it was Friedrich, in October, who had warned Gabriel and the SPD. Friedrich quickly resigned since the tip was illegal and prosecutors have indicated they might investigate him on charges of breaching confidentiality.
The effort to build trust between the parties has now erupted into a highly damaging break of any trust between the political parties. A furious Seehofer demanded Oppermann’s resignation over the weekend as the price to be paid for his handling of the case, while Gabriel is stoutly defending his Bundestag leader, asserting Oppermann acted properly.
Chancellor Merkel herself, was forced to declare “questions need to be answered” even though the widespread sense in Berlin is that she too, like Seehofer and Gabriel, was well aware of Friedrich’s leak of the charges against Edathy.
That Gabriel is trying to reassure that he will “work to preserve the coalition” is in itself a testimony to how serious the crisis could become if it isn’t defused in the next few days.
Damaging Political Fall Out
The meeting between Merkel and the leaders of her two coalition partner parties, Gabriel and Seehofer is taking place without aides and is in place of an originally scheduled “coalition committee meeting” which was canceled due to the high tensions between the three parties.
It is unlikely that the CSU will back off until Oppermann is forced out as well as Friedrich. The catch is, however, is that even if Opermann is forced from his position as the SPD’s most senior Bundestag leader, it may not stop there. That is why the outcome of the leadership discussions tonight may prove to be crucial to whether the scandal dies a quick death or the media is given enough to run with the story still further and for longer to bring down more party officials.
The media is pressing hard with further investigations, and Gabriel is certainly seen to be at the most risk. But if Gabriel is forced out, it could put Merkel’s Grand Coalition in jeopardy as the SPD would then be forced to deal with yet another leadership crisis barely months after its bruising loss to Merkel and the CDU last September under its chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck.
What has so many in Berlin worried is the precedent of the scandals that engulfed the Free Democrats soon after they went into a ruling coalition with Merkel and the CDU/CSU in 2009. The FDP never really recovered, and weakened the Merkel government throughout the Euro crisis. The FDP ended up losing its Bundestag representation altogether in the September federal elections.
A weakened Merkel government, or even a collapse of the Grand Coalition, should be factored into any political risk calculations in Europe, simply because the political consequences are so high even if the probabilities are so low.
In any case, however, Merkel’s Grand Coalition is already so buffeted by deep distrust that any honeymoon between the three parties is already well over, just as Berlin is approaching the European parliamentary elections, new domestic policy initiatives with energy and pension reforms, and the still divisive European debate over the banking union.