Angela Merkel was forced to reshuffle her cabinet less than one month into her second term as German chancellor on Friday after Franz Josef Jung resigned his portfolio as labour minister.
Mr Jung, defence minister in Ms Merkel’s first government, stood accused of playing down the high number of civilian casualties caused by a German-ordered Nato air strike in Afghanistan in September. The controversy could undermine already fragile support for the German mission in the country.
Mr Jung’s departure, the first time a minister has had to resign from a Merkel cabinet, is the latest and most serious setback for the new centre-right coalition, which has spent much of its first weeks in office squabbling over economic policy.
Ms Merkel said she would appoint Ursula van der Leyen, family minister, to the more senior labour portfolio, which carries one of the biggest budgets in the cabinet. Kristina Köhler, 32, a largely unknown MP, will take over the family ministry, becoming the youngest cabinet member.
In a short statement announcing his resignation, Mr Jung continued to deny any wrongdoing, saying he “assumed the political responsibility” for internal communication problems at the defence ministry.
The departure of Mr Jung, considered one of the weakest members of the cabinet, and his replacement by the energetic and capable Mrs van der Leyen, a close ally of the chancellor, could be a blessing in disguise for Ms Merkel.
However, this week’s revelations about the controversial air strike could have more negative repercussions for the government.
Parliament is due to vote next week to extend the mandate of Germany’s 4,500-strong mission in Afghanistan, the third largest, for another year.
News that the defence ministry should have known about the extensive civilian casualties caused by the air strike, despite Mr Jung’s repeated assurances that no civilians had been harmed, has caused uproar among opposition MPs in parliament.
The publication on Thursday of a secret report by German military police documenting some of the casualties prompted Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, the new defence minister, to dismiss Wolfgang Schneiderhan, his top general, and a deputy minister for hiding information from him.