By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - A close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday rejected allegations of plagiarism in her 1980 doctoral thesis and said she wanted to stay in the cabinet beyond September's election.
The accusations are similar to those that last year brought down Merkel's defense minister and heir-apparent, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, but could prove more damaging for the government only nine months before an election.
A University of Duesseldorf faculty board voted unanimously last week for a full inquiry into Education Minister Annette Schavan after a smaller panel recommended taking away her PhD in education because it said parts of the thesis had been copied. A university-level panel will decide on the request on January 22.
Schavan, 57, told the newspaper Die Welt she had written her thesis with a clear conscience in 1980. "That's why I strongly reject these accusations," she added. "I want to stay on as a minister beyond next year's election."
As Schavan is education minister, the case is a direct threat to her credibility, and opposition leaders have called on Schavan to resign.
Merkel has said Schavan has her confidence but on Sunday a coalition ally, Martin Neumann of the Free Democrats (FDP), also urged Schavan to consider stepping down.
"The longer the process goes on, the more difficult it will be for both sides," Neumann told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper. "If she didn't apply scientific standards to her work, she has to accept the consequences."
The newspaper said she had herself raised the issue of resigning with her party if she was stripped of her postgraduate degree, but she told the paper she was not concerned with hypothetical questions.
Schavan was among the first to condemn Guttenberg for plagiarizing his PhD thesis, calling it "shameful".
Merkel at first strongly defended Guttenberg, a rising star in her government and the most popular conservative politician in decades, before withdrawing her support.
Schavan's thesis is entitled "People and Conscience - Studies on the conditions, necessity and requirements for formation of conscience today".
The allegations of plagiarism have dogged her since May and she asked the university to examine them. A report by its philosophy faculty found indications of a "plagiaristic approach" on 60 of the 351 pages, the magazine Der Spiegel reported.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)