BERLIN (Reuters) - A few years ago, Thomas de Maiziere was seen as a leading candidate to succeed Angela Merkel one day. What he lacked in charisma, he made up for in competence and reliability, the same traits that had vaulted his boss into the German chancellery.
Now the 61-year-old interior minister, a stern protestant who earned the nickname “paper-clip” for poring over documents during a stint as defense minister, looks like damaged goods, accused of botching Berlin’s response to the refugee crisis.
The abrupt resignation on Thursday of Manfred Schmidt, the head of Germany’s BAMF refugee agency, seems unlikely to silence the critics — among them the influential leader of Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU) — who say de Maiziere took too long to recognize the depth of the asylum problem and reacted passively when it hit.
In political Berlin, some are now questioning whether the Bonn-born de Maiziere, who has known the chancellor for 25 years and served as her chief of staff, could become the next casualty in a long line of loyal Merkel allies who have fallen on their swords since she came to power in 2005.
That would be a serious blow to Merkel herself, who a week ago was being celebrated for opening the door wide to refugees fleeing war in the Middle East, but is now being criticized in the media here for unwittingly encouraging asylum seekers to attempt the harrowing journey to Germany.
She left it to de Maiziere to announce last Sunday that the government was correcting its course by introducing border controls to stem the flow.
“In a crisis situation, you need to be out there communicating and reassuring,” said Frank Decker, a political scientist at Bonn University. “In this regard, de Maiziere has been less than ideal.”
A coalition official, who requested anonymity, was harsher in his verdict: “In a crisis, you can’t mull over every decision until it’s 150 percent fool-proof. You need to make gut decisions, you need a feel, a nose for where it’s heading next.”
De Maiziere was asked during a visit to Rosenheim on the Austrian border on Thursday whether he had thought about resigning. “No, I am working,” he replied.
Stephan Mayer, a conservative German lawmaker, called the criticism “overdone” and described the minister as the right man to tackle the refugee challenge in a responsible, measured way.
In his defense, de Maiziere was suffering from a bad flu when the crisis escalated unexpectedly in early September, with tens of thousands of refugees flowing from Hungary, through Austria, and into Germany. He soldiered on, but was visibly weak and came under criticism for his business-as-usual tone in interviews.
Recent articles have contrasted his style unfavorably with that of Ursula von der Leyen, the dynamic, diminutive mother of seven whose determination to become defense minister after the last election in 2013 led Merkel to push de Maiziere sideways into the interior ministry, against his will.
In the months before the vote, de Maiziere had come under pressure for wasting hundreds of millions of euros in taxpayer money in a procurement deal for four reconnaissance drones.
De Maiziere, who comes from a family of Huguenots, or French protestants, who fled France for Prussia in the late 17th century, admitted to mistakes but ignored calls to resign.
People who know him say he emerged from the scandal determined to restore his reputation at the ministry.
Instead he was nudged aside by von der Leyen, his biggest party rival, months later. Deeply disappointed, some colleagues say he has not had the same energy since.
Still, Merkel is unlikely to drop de Maiziere anytime soon.
Since becoming chancellor, she has watched countless allies leave. Among them, education minister Annette Schavan and defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned for plagiarism. And her hand-picked choice for president, Christian Wulff, stepped down in a financial favors scandal.
Officials close to Merkel, speaking to Reuters on Thursday on condition of anonymity, said de Maiziere’s departure was not even up for discussion. So far, opinion polls show Merkel’s party holding up well in the crisis.
But if the political backlash over the refugee crisis grows, de Maiziere, the son of a Bundeswehr inspector general who preached duty and discipline, would be first in the firing line.
His critics say he failed to fight for more staff and budget for the BAMF, which falls under his ministry, despite years of warnings from German states that the agency was being overwhelmed with asylum applications.
Promises last year to reduce processing times to three from seven months have not been fulfilled and some 250,000 asylum applications have piled up at the Nuremberg-based agency.
Simone Peter, leader of the Greens party, told Reuters that Schmidt, the agency chief who resigned on Thursday, was nothing more than a “fall guy” to cover up the failures of de Maiziere.
Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin, Andreas Rinke, Gernot Heller; Writing by Noah Barkin; editing by Philippa Fletcher