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Germany's Merkel to meet coalition leaders Tuesday as crisis looms

German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a point during her speech at the German lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin January 29, 2014
German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a point during her speech at the German lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin January 29, 2014

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet leaders of her coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Social Union (CSU), on Tuesday to try to resolve a crisis over the forced exit of a conservative minister.

The ouster of Hans-Peter Friedrich on Friday over his handling of confidential information about a looming inquiry into a SPD lawmaker suspected of possessing child pornography has split Merkel's two-month-old coalition just as it was trying to enact urgently needed pension and energy reforms.

Sources in Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the SPD said on Sunday party chiefs would convene after CSU chairman Horst Seehofer rebuked the SPD for actions that forced Friedrich to resign as agriculture minister.

"The meeting had been previously scheduled and the affair will certainly be one of the topics," a party source told Reuters, adding Merkel, Seehofer and SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel would be joined by the parties' parliamentary heads.

Tuesday's gathering will be the new government's first "coalition committee" meeting - a small group of leaders that meets on an irregular basis to iron out difficulties.

Merkel, who began her third term in December eager to use an 80-percent majority in parliament to tackle domestic and euro zone issues, wants to defuse tensions over the scandal while Seehofer, head of her Bavarian sister party, wants revenge against the SPD for Friedrich, analysts said.

"It has the makings of a full coalition crisis but Merkel wants to protect her government and hopes it'll all go away," said Cologne University political scientist Thomas Jaeger.

Bild am Sonntag newspaper's front page headline declared Merkel's coalition is "only partially capable of governing" Germany, the European Union's largest, strongest economy. Der Spiegel magazine's cover called it: "The affair of state."

Hannelore Kraft, SPD premier in Germany's largest state North Rhine-Westphalia, said the coalition was in a tight spot now. "It's a difficult situation when a minister resigns so soon after a government is formed," she told Bild am Sonntag.

Jaeger said Merkel's governing "grand coalition" could be in jeopardy if the scandal undermines the position of Gabriel, who was tipped off about the investigation by Friedrich in October and passed it along to two other SPD leaders.

What began as a small domestic scandal about SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy erupted into a major political furor when the SPD's parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann said that Friedrich had warned the SPD that Edathy could be a target of an inquiry.

That raised questions whether Friedrich had inappropriately passed on confidential information about the looming investigation to Gabriel, possibly in violation of the law.

Prosecutors in Hanover have complained that the leaking may have compromised their case. Der Spiegel news magazine reported on Sunday that prosecutors and government officials are investigating who might have tipped off Edathy about the probe.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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