BERLIN - German Chancellor Angela Merkel was left licking her wounds Sunday after her education minister quit amid a plagiarism scandal, depriving her of a key ally as she gears up for September elections.
Merkel betrayed rare emotion as she accepted "with a very heavy heart" the resignation of Annette Schavan, a personal friend, who quit to fight charges from her former university that she plagiarised her thesis 33 years ago.
Although Merkel enjoys a sizeable lead in the polls and a high level of personal popularity, this is the second body blow in recent weeks after what she termed a "painful" loss in a state election on January 20.
"The year could hardly have started worse for Mrs Merkel," gloated the chief whip of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), Thomas Oppermann.
Nevertheless, the level of alleged plagiarism in Schavan's thesis "Person and Conscience" was thought to be much less than in a similar case two years ago when popular defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg quit.
And even some opposition figures showed some sympathy for Schavan, who has vowed to fight Duesseldorf University's decision to strip her of her doctorate in the courts.
SPD head Sigmar Gabriel said in an interview in the Welt am Sonntag weekly that he valued Schavan as an "honest and competent" minister and he was "extremely sorry" to see her go but he believed it was the right decision.
The media was full of praise for the manner of Schavan's departure, perceived as dignified, and for the way she appeared to put her party and Merkel ahead of her personal ambition.
Addressing her leader and friend as "dear Angela", Schavan said the accusations that she cheated affected her "deeply" and said her priorities had always been "first my country, then my party and then me personally."
Merkel has already survived zu Guttenberg's more damaging resignation; the loss of another defence minister over controversial comments on Afghanistan; and the departure of party ally Christian Wulff as president over a home loan scandal.
Several media reports said the loss of Schavan would not inflict too much damage on Merkel, even in the run-up to elections on September 22.
"Merkel can distinguish between the demands of her office and of friendship. The office demanded a quick, concise decision. Friendship demanded glowing words. She offered... both," said the Berlin-based Tagesspiegel daily.
"That makes Merkel unassailable in this case because no-one could have done it better," added the paper.
The left-leaning Sueddeutsche Zeitung said the resignation "will not harm Merkel."
"Until now, no resignation has been seen by the people as due to her own political failings. There were always individual reasons. That is the art that Merkel has mastered. Everything bounces off her," noted the paper.
"In this case, that is completely right."
The chancellor moved quickly to mitigate the fallout, immediately appointing the 61-year-old Johanna Wanka, a mathematician with wide experience in education, as the new minister.
But the influential Die Zeit weekly noted that things were getting "lonely" around Merkel, as she loses yet another ally from her own conservative ranks amid a loveless relationship with her coalition partner, the Free Democrats.
"With Schavan's resignation, Merkel loses a further faithful ally. There aren't many people around her that can help her," said the paper.
"Like (former chancellor Helmut) Kohl at the end of his long chancellorship, she's standing almost completely on her own. There's hardly anyone left from her Praetorian guard."