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A Turning Point for Angela Merkel's Chancellorship?

Wigan Salazar
, Thu, 09/27/2018

The CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group Elects a New Chairman

Executive Summary
Berlin, September 26, 2018.

Volker Kauder, one of Angela Merkel’s main stalwarts, was toppled yesterday by fiscal expert Ralph Brinkhaus who now heads the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the German Bundestag. This shocking result is a further dent in the German chancellor’s authority. Kauder had been instrumental in securing majorities for Merkel’s government since she became chancellor 13 years ago. While Brinkhaus himself is unlikely to challenge Merkel in her role as chancellor, the events of the next months will determine how long she can remain in power. It is not likely that she will complete this term. The regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse are likely to exert additional pressure on her. Moreover, she is up for re-election in her role as party chair in December. She may face a rival candidate or could even decide not to run. Anyone who secures this role will be a frontrunner to succeed her as chancellor, whether at the helm of a grand coalition or a retry of the so-called Jamaica coalition between CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens.

Brinkhaus Topples Kauder – And Merkel Loses a Key Ally

Germany’s so-called grand coalition between the traditionally strongest political parliamentary groups of CDU/ CSU and SPD has gone through a remarkable series of crises in the past months. After a showdown between Chancellor Merkel and her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on asylum policy in June, and a very recent controversy between all three coalition parties on how to handle controversial public comments by the head of Germany’s internal intelligence service, Merkel’s authority has been dealt a severe blow from her own parliamentary group.

Volker Kauder, one of Merkel’s key stalwarts, was toppled from his post as head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group by Ralph Brinkhaus, a fiscal policy expert. Kauder had been head of the parliamentary group for 13 years and thus throughout Merkel’s chancellorship so far. He was instrumental in instilling discipline in the parliamentary group – to the extent of making himself fairly unpopular among CDU and CSU members of parliament, who have long been frustrated about the lack of debate within the group. A prominent conservative, Kauder initially was an unlikely ally for Merkel. His marked conservatism helped sway over conservative party members skeptical of Merkel’s liberal course. Over the years, however, Kauder lost trust on many sides of the party and has since generally been seen as a ruthless enforcer of government policies.

Ralph Brinkhaus’ Slow Burn Campaign

Ralph Brinkhaus is the unlikely protagonist of a parliamentary revolt against Volker Kauder and, by extension, Angela Merkel. The 50-year-old fiscal expert from Eastern Westphalia has in past years assiduously climbed the party ranks. As deputy chairman of the parliamentary group and chairman of his CDU party district, Brinkhaus built up a solid and respectable power base over the last years. However, he was not considered a prime contender for a leadership position in either party or parliament in the post-Merkel era. In parliament, Brinkhaus earned himself a reputation as a solid fiscal policy expert with the rare talent of delivering speeches without a script. While gaining a reputation as a pragmatist and loyalist, Brinkhaus managed to land a policy coup early this year, positioning himself and the parliamentary group against a Eurozone reform at any price – a stance that raised eyebrows in a German federal government eager to support the Macron administration’s Eurozone plans.

Just a couple of weeks ago, most pundits in Germany’s capital ridiculed Ralph Brinkhaus’ announcement to challenge Volker Kauder. The consensus was that he lacked the backing and that a failed bid would destroy his future career chances. Not belonging to any particular party wing or group, his bid was seen as clumsy at best. After all, he did not even bother to formally secure the backing of the North Rhine-Westphalian parliamentary group, to which he belongs and had played the key role in Merkel’s ascent to power. Moreover, Merkel’s key rivals – notably Health Minister Jens Spahn – had decided to grudgingly place their bets with Volker Kauder, following the rationale that it would make more sense to topple Merkel and Kauder shortly before or after the next election.

Against this backdrop, however, Brinkhaus managed to catch the groundswell of discontent within the parliamentary group. Even before the refugee crisis, the parliamentary group only reluctantly followed Kauder – immigration issues have since exacerbated the tense situation in this group. The fact that Brinkhaus does not belong to any faction and that he had not been an anti-Merkel rebel made his bid attractive to Merkel critics and Merkel loyalists fed up with Kauder alike. Brinkhaus’ ascent is thus not fully explained by discontent on immigration issues. In the course of the past weeks, the spin among Merkel critics was that Brinkhaus could be a transition chairman, opening the door to a new generation of leaders while in the long run having to cede his place to them. By winning against these odds, Brinkhaus may prove this group wrong in the long term. In any case, his successful campaign has given him a far stronger standing than anyone had expected.

The End of Merkel’s Chancellorship?

After his election, Brinkhaus was quick to state that “not a piece of paper” fit between him and Angela Merkel, who herself conceded that this vote was a defeat for her. Indeed, it is not to be expected that Brinkhaus will attempt to topple Merkel. The agenda he has touted throughout his campaign was that the parliamentary group needed more debate and more activity – the promise of more vitality in contrast to the tight grip Kauder held seems to have been attractive. It is not expected that Brinkhaus will challenge Merkel directly.

It is clear, however, that Merkel’s power has declined even further. Her authority within the coalition has been tenuous at best since 2017, with her main rival, CSU chairman Horst Seehofer, entering the government. We are definitely witnessing the end game of her chancellorship – and it will be interesting to see whether she will use her still remarkable political skills to ensure a swift transition or whether we will see more agony in the coalition.

Two events may exert additional pressure on Merkel: the regional elections in Bavaria (October 14) and Hesse (October 28). In Bavaria, Merkel’s sister party, CSU, stands to lose its majority in the Bavarian parliament. Instead of reaching 45-50% of the vote, which the party has long seen as a given, the CSU is currently polling at 35% and will have to enter a coalition government to cling to power. A bad result may sweep away federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer from his CSU chairmanship and possibly from his cabinet post. At the election in Hesse, the current prime minister Volker Bouffier (CDU), a key Merkel ally, will likely lose percentage points, although he still may be able to gain a next term. The results of both elections will exert pressure on Merkel – and may trigger events, especially in the CSU, with consequences that are hard to fathom. The CDU and CSU parting ways, for instance, remains a distinct possibility.

The next key date is the CDU party convention (December 6 -8), which is of particular importance because the party board, including the chairmanship, is scheduled for re-election. Merkel may face a rival candidate for the chairmanship. Alternatively, she may choose to no longer run for this office. In any case, the results of this election will be crucial to her future – and the country’s future. Merkel has always made clear that she sees her role as chancellor as inextricably linked to her role as party chair. Anyone who follows her in the latter role will claim the right to stand for the chancellorship.

Possible alternative candidates for the chairmanship are the party’s secretary-general Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and health minister Jens Spahn – however, the Brinkhaus candidature has shown that a dark horse may join the race. Kramp-Karrenbauer is unlikely to challenge Merkel – she may be anointed as successor. Spahn, on the other hand, has to weigh his options in the next weeks. The party’s conservative wing from which he draws support has not followed his recommendation to support Kauder for the time being – this relationship clearly needs mending. One option may be for Spahn to display his typical brand of audacity and challenge Merkel – or Kramp-Karrenbauer – for the chairmanship.

Should the CDU elect a new chairman, Merkel may be swiftly replaced as chancellor. The main stumbling block is whether the coalition partner SPD will accept a new CDU candidate. The so-called Jamaica coalition between CDU/CSU, Liberals (FDP) and Greens may be an option – especially with new protagonists on the CDU/CSU side. Over the next three months, it will be decided on whether the grand coalition’s agony will end and which parties and politicians will govern Germany from 2019 onwards.

Wigan Salazar
Wigan Salazar is CEO of MSL’s German operations, and counts among Germany’s prime public affairs advisors. He has a background in politics as an active party board member and former staffer.


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