German coalition hurt by scandal but won't break

BERLIN (REUTERS) - 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 reform programme.

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 Dr 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 Dr 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."

Dr Merkel's grand coalition, which was sworn in only two months ago, has to tackle delicate reforms of the energy and pension systems. But Mr Friedrich's resignation last Friday was over allegations dating from when he held a different position in a different government.

As interior minister in Dr Merkel's previous centre-right coalition, Mr 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 Mr Friedrich had warned the SPD about the investigation last October.

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.

Dr Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert played down media talk of a government crisis, while Bavarian premier Mr Seehofer said the coalition's fate was not in doubt and Mr Gabriel said the SPD also wanted to get back to work immediately.

"I can understand why the conservatives are angry," Mr 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 Mr Gabriel, who will meet Merkel and Seehofer on Tuesday to try to clear the air.

"The government is not at a standstill."

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.

Mr Edathy quit Parliament, citing health reasons, and threatened to sue the newspaper that first reported the inquiry.

Mr Seibert acknowledged there remained "important questions to clear up" in the Mr Edathy affair, but added: "This won't hinder the work of the coalition."

Mr 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 Mr 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.

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