ANGELA Merkel’s education minister has pledged to fight a university ruling that she plagiarised part of her doctoral thesis, meaning the scandal will remain in the public domain during a general election year.
Annette Schavan, a close ally of Germany’s chancellor, has rejected opposition calls for her to step down after the University of Dusseldorf announced on Tuesday that parts of her 1980 thesis had been copied and that it was stripping her of her PhD.
Her case closely mirrors that of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who quit as defence minister in 2011 over a plagiarised thesis. Mr Guttenberg had been viewed before his departure as a possible heir to Mrs Merkel.
“I will not accept the decision of the University of Dusseldorf and I will file a lawsuit against it,” Mrs Schavan, 57, said yesterdayduring a visit to Johannesburg, South Africa.
She declined to make any further comment.
The accusations of plagiarism are especially embarrassing for Mrs Schavan because she oversees Germany’s universities and had been scathing in her criticism of Mr Guttenberg, who quit a month after losing his doctorate.
“An education minister who is proven to have grossly violated academic rules cannot continue in the post,” said Renate Kuenast, a leading member of the opposition Greens. “I assume Frau Schavan will spare herself and education a prolongation of this affair by resigning.”
Mrs Merkel’s spokesman said she was in contact with Mrs Schavan, who had her support.
“The chancellor values the minister’s performance highly and has full trust in her,” Steffen Seibert said yesterday. Mrs Merkel and Mrs Schavan would have talks “in peace and quiet” after the minister’s return from South Africa, he added.
Some members of Mrs Merkel’s centre-right coalition said the minister had fallen victim to a politically motivated campaign to damage the government ahead of the autumn federal election – the date of which was formally proposed yesterday as 22 September.
Mrs Merkel, a doctor of physics, is Germany’s most popular politician and her conservatives are tipped to win the election, but there is uncertainty about the make-up of the next government.
Mrs Merkel’s current coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats, may fail to clear the 5 per cent threshold to enter parliament. That would force her to consider a pact with the opposition Social Democrats.
German media has been critical of Mrs Schavan.
“If the education minister has cheated in her doctoral thesis, it is like the finance minister secretly hiding away his money in Switzerland or the traffic minister driving a car while drunk,” said Bild. “There is no alternative [to resignation] for her.”
The Dusseldorf university commission ruled she had “systematically and intentionally presented intellectual performance that in reality she did not generate herself”.
The decision left Mrs Schavan without an academic title, an important status symbol in German politics and business. Falsely using a doctoral title is a criminal offence and can be punished with a fine or up to one year in prison.
Since the allegations first arose in May last year, Mrs Schavan has denied wrongdoing and said she wrote her dissertation with a clear conscience.
Her lawyers have said the proceedings of the commission had been riddled with mistakes and were unlawful, not least because information was leaked to the public in the process.