* Tensions high in German coalition after conservative falls
* Merkel aide plays down talk of government crisis
* Social Democrat leader understands conservatives' ire
By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, Feb 17 The fall of a conservative
minister has poisoned the atmosphere in Germany's new left-right
coalition, but party leaders made clear on Monday they would not
let this derail the government at a sensitive moment for its
Agriculture Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich's resignation
prompted tit-for-tat calls for the Social Democrats, who share
power in Chancellor Angela Merkel's "grand coalition", to offer
up a scalp of their own.
However, analysts expect the coalition, which has a large
parliamentary majority, to return to business as usual after a
brief spell of shin-kicking between Merkel's conservatives, its
Bavarian sister party led by Horst Seehofer and the Social
Democrats of Sigmar Gabriel.
"The scandal is detrimental to the atmosphere in the
coalition and its image, and I think it's going to take a while
for it to properly get back to work," said Carsten Koschmieder,
a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
"But Merkel, Seehofer and Gabriel know there's no
alternative. Merkel doesn't have another coalition partner in
the wings and they all know they'd probably lose support in new
elections. So despite the fighting, the coalition will survive."
Merkel's grand coalition, which was sworn in only two months
ago, has to tackle delicate reforms of the energy and pension
systems. But Friedrich's resignation last Friday was over
allegations dating from when he held a different position in a
As interior minister in Merkel's previous centre-right
coalition, Friedrich is alleged to have inappropriately passed
on confidential information about a looming investigation into a
prominent Social Democrat (SPD) lawmaker last year.
Prosecutors have complained this may have compromised their
inquiry into alleged possession of child pornography.
What began as a domestic scandal turned into a major dispute
when the Social Democrats' parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann
said Friedrich had warned the SPD about the investigation last
Conservatives are now angry that Friedrich, a member of the
Bavarian Christian Social Union, has been sacrificed while no
member of the SPD has gone, even though the party is also caught
up in the scandal.
Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert played down media talk of
a government crisis, while Bavarian premier Seehofer said the
coalition's fate was not in doubt and Gabriel said the SPD also
wanted to get back to work immediately.
"I can understand why the conservatives are angry," Gabriel
said, adding that he was sorry Friedrich had resigned for trying
to help the SPD but insisting the coalition would soldier on.
"We'll do everything we can to pick up where we left off,"
said Gabriel, who will meet Merkel and Seehofer on Tuesday to
try to clear the air. "The government is not at a standstill."
AN EYE FOR AN EYE?
It emerged last week that SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy is
being investigated by prosecutors on suspicion of possessing
child pornography, an accusation he has denied vigorously.
Edathy quit parliament, citing health reasons, and threatened to
sue the newspaper that first reported the inquiry.
Seibert acknowledged there remained "important questions to
clear up" in the Edathy affair, but added: "This won't hinder
the work of the coalition."
Friedrich's party has demanded the Social Democrats explain
themselves. Some conservatives want Oppermann - who plays a
pivotal role in parliament ensuring the three coalition parties
work together - to be sacrificed as well.
"We don't understand why the SPD passed along information
from Friedrich," said Seehofer, who stopped short however of
pushing for an SPD resignation: "At stake now is cooperation. At
stake is not the collapse of the coalition."
Hannelore Kraft, the SPD's state premier in North
Rhine-Westphalia, urged the conservatives to drop their demands
for Oppermann to resign. "He told the truth," she said. "We
can't have this kind of 'eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth'."
One senior SPD official expected the conservatives to exact
a price for letting Oppermann remain in his post - such as
pushing for more control of infrastructure and energy policy.
"It's clear there will be a shift in weight on all issues,"
said the SPD official, who asked not to be named.