German opposition hit by subsidy scandal

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The Independent Online

The Christian Democrats in Germany were plunged further into crisis yesterday after a payments scandal forced their deputy leader to become the fourth senior figure to step down in two months.

The Christian Democrats in Germany were plunged further into crisis yesterday after a payments scandal forced their deputy leader to become the fourth senior figure to step down in two months.

Laurenz Meyer, the tough-talking general secretary of the CDU opposition, was appointed four years ago as part of a drive to clean up the image of a party badly tainted by a bribery and slush-fund scandal.

But yesterday the 56-year-old was obliged to step down after suffering a barrage of criticism for failing to declare €60,000-worth (£42,000) of payments and subsidised gas and electricity he had received from his former employers, the RWE energy company, since taking office.

The CDU party leadership announced on Monday that it planned to stand by Mr Meyer after he admitted his failure to declare the payments was a "mistake". However, by yesterday the fury of rank and file CDU members in the state of North Rhine Westphalia, where key elections are to be held early next year, spilled over.

Mr Meyer's resignation could hardly have come at a worse time for Angela Merkel, the CDU's leader. Less than six months ago, her party was riding high in the polls and as protests against Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's economic reforms grew, she was confident of winning Germany's 2006 general election. But over the past two months, her party has suffered a series of damaging resignations.

A fortnight ago, Hermann Arentz, the CDU's chief social affairs spokesman, was forced to step down following revelations that he was receiving an annual €60,000 salary and free electricity from RWE, where, like Mr Meyer, he worked before taking office.

Horst Seehofer, the conservatives' highly respected health spokesman, resigned last month after a dispute with Mrs Merkel over plans to revamp healthcare funding. Six weeks before that, Friedrich Merz, the conservatives' finance and economics spokesman, stepped down following another clash with Mrs Merkel.

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