Merkel's crisis-hit government replaces minister

AFP , Monday 17 Feb 2014

Merkel, Friedrich
File Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and then Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich attend a demography conference at the Chancellery in Berlin in this April 24, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition swiftly moved to replace a minister Monday in a widening crisis for the two-month-old government sparked by a child porn probe.

Hans-Peter Friedrich abruptly resigned from the agriculture portfolio Friday under pressure over suspicions he leaked confidential information about the probe while serving as interior minister.

Replacing him is Christian Social Union (CSU) party colleague Christian Schmidt, who is currently the party's deputy head, the Bavarian-based conservative party announced Monday.

The scandal built up steam last week as it emerged that Friedrich had tipped off the head of the Social Democrats (SPD) that the name of one of its prominent MPs had cropped up in an international child pornography inquiry.

The move, which dates back to October when Merkel's conservatives were negotiating to form a new coalition after September 22 elections, was apparently aimed at preventing the MP being included in any new cabinet line-up.

German media has raised fears that the leak may have harmed the course of the legal investigation.

But the crisis has exposed traditional fault lines between Merkel's conservative bloc and its old foes, the centre-left SPD, who in December buried the hatchet to team up in a left-right "grand coalition".

It has also triggered awkward questions over who knew what and when as well as finger-pointing, just as the government grapples political hot potatoes such as renewable energy and the minimum wage.

Merkel sees need for further clarity in the matter but no danger that it could impact the government's work, her spokesman said Monday, in response to reporters' insistent questions.

"For the chancellor it is important that all outstanding questions are settled in a convincing way," Steffen Seibert said.

But Merkel has the "confidence that this coalition, this government, will be in the position to attend to the big issues in the interest of the citizens", he told reporters.

A government meeting, scheduled Tuesday, has now been replaced by planned talks between just the coalition's three party chiefs, CSU head Horst Seehofer said.

Last week it emerged that searches had been carried out at the home and offices of SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy as part of a Canadian-led child pornography investigation.

Edathy -- who has gained prominence for heading a parliamentary panel into the shock 2011 discovery of a neo-Nazi killer cell -- had stepped down from his Bundestag seat days earlier citing health reasons.

He has vehemently denied being in possession of child pornography.

SPD parliamentary group leader Thomas Oppermann, who revealed that Friedrich had passed on the information to SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel, now Merkel's vice-chancellor, has himself come under fire amid CSU anger that one of its ministers has paid the price of a cabinet job.

Schmidt, 56, was previously state secretary in the development ministry.

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