What Comes Next? Chinks in Merkel's Power Becoming Visible

In a recent act of rebellion, German conservatives chose to oust one of Angela Merkel's closest confidants. It is just the latest sign that the chancellor's power is eroding. And the scuffle within her party to succeed her has begun. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

CLEMENS BILAN/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

He never saw it coming. After 13 years as conservative floor leader in the German parliament, Volker Kauder figured he still had enough support to be re-elected to the position once again. After all, he still enjoyed the full support of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But it wasn't to be. A week ago on Tuesday, he failed to receive sufficient backing from lawmakers from the Christian Democrats (CDU) and from the center-right party's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Instead, Ralph Brinkhaus won -- and Kauder quickly left the parliamentary group meeting after briefly shaking hands with his successor. Longtime staff members were waiting for him in his office, some with tears in their eyes, according to someone who was at the meeting. One of them had already ordered the movers. After all, the rules hold that Brinkhaus, as the new floor leader, has the right to the large office Kauder has occupied for the last several years. The outgoing floor leader will also have to significantly downsize his staff, will no longer have a right to his own driver and will see his remuneration cut in half.

Kauder did his best to cut through the doom and gloom. "Calm down everybody. I'll survive." But everyone knows how important the job -- and the proximity to the chancellor - had been to Kauder. A friend of Kauder's in the Bundestag called his wife Elisabeth, a doctor in Stuttgart, and she tried to catch the last flight to Berlin. Meanwhile, Merkel kept sending text messages to make sure that Kauder had the support he needed.

Merkel had little time to tend to Kauder herself. Following Brinkhaus's victory, she too left the meeting of conservative lawmakers and huddled with a couple of confidants to come up with a statement describing the catastrophe that had just taken place before her very eyes. What was there to say in the face of such an obvious defeat?

There have been so many conservatives who have tried to get rid of Merkel. There was Christian Wulff, the soft-spoken Christian Democrat who Merkel shunted off to the presidency. There was Friedrich Merz, who stumbled over his own temper, and crafty Roland Koch, who grew impatient and ultimately backed out of politics altogether. Merkel left them all behind. When conflict arose, it was always Merkel who kept her nerve and proved to have a better sense for the mood within the party. Even more recently, her ultra-sensitive nose for power was on full display: It was just a couple of weeks ago that Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the CSU was almost forced to resign after losing a high-profile battle over immigration to Merkel.

The Perfect Message

It isn't without irony that one of Merkel's biggest political defeats in her 13 years in the Chancellery has now come at the hands of Brinkhaus. He is far from being an obsessive climber, nor is he someone who has completely turned on Merkel. Rather, he led a rather understated campaign that hinged on his demand for a new form of dialogue within the party and with the voters. Indeed, that is likely why he was successful: He represented the chance for change without actually changing much. For conservative lawmakers, torn as they are between their weariness of Merkel and loyalty to her, it was the perfect message.

Merkel could have averted the revolt had she turned away from Kauder and chosen a different candidate. But she wanted to reward his loyalty. Plus, he had specifically requested at the beginning of this legislative period that he be allowed to run one last time for the position of floor leader. Indeed, that too is an irony in this story: Merkel, who has made a habit of clearing male challengers out of her way, is now wobbling because she couldn't refuse the request of a close, male political ally.

Merkel, of course, has suffered plenty of defeats over her career and her demise has been predicted more than once. Her experience, in fact, hasn't been much different than that of Helmut Kohl, the man who occupied the Chancellery for 16 years on behalf of the Christian Democrats. But never have the conservatives in parliament rebelled so openly against their own chancellor and elected a floor leader who did not have his or her blessing.

The chancellor is fully aware that, having revolted once, the CDU and CSU lawmakers are more likely to do so again. Which is one reason why she didn't seek to play down the defeat on Tuesday. "Part of democracy is accepting setbacks," she said. But she knows that controlling her own withdrawal from politics has become that much more difficult.

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No German chancellor, of course, has ever been given the opportunity to author the final chapter of their power alone. But for a while, it looked as though Merkel would be the exception. She brought Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to Berlin in the hopes of being able to hand over party leadership to her in 2020, if she played her cards right. That, at least, is the plan that has been making the rounds in CDU party headquarters in Berlin.

When she decided in fall 2016 to run again, she did so in part because of the deep divisions in Europe due to the conflict over refugees and because of uncertainty on the other side of the Atlantic, where Donald Trump had just been elected president of the United States. Many saw Merkel as the last hope in a world that had gone crazy. "She's all alone," Barack Obama said the last time he visited Merkel as president in mid-November 2016.

Managing Her Own End

But then Emmanuel Macron was elected president in France, a man who seemed to possess vastly more energy than Merkel, and many German conservatives began to see Merkel as more of the cause than the solution to the deep divides running through Europe. Now, it is beginning to seem highly questionable if Merkel will be able to manage her own end.

The CDU's next party convention takes place in December, where Merkel and the rest of the CDU leadership will be up for re-election. Following the switch from Kauder to Brinkhaus as parliamentary group leader, there are some within the party who are now saying it is time for a new party leader as well. "The voting out of Kauder was an important valve for the parliamentary group. The party's grassroots are unhappy because of the constant bickering in Berlin. I assume the party leadership has understood the message," says Sven Schulze, a CDU member of the European Parliament. "The next step is the party convention in Hamburg. I am certain that Ms. Merkel is deliberating carefully as to whether she should run again" for re-election as CDU leader.

Schulze, who is also the general secretary of the CDU's state chapter in Saxony-Anhalt, insists that he is not trying to launch a debate over Merkel's leadership. "That would only hurt the party," he says. But it seems likely that such a debate will erupt nonetheless. Ever since last Tuesday's revolt, Merkel's own people have been trying to come up with a way for the chancellor to bring her final term to a dignified end and to save her legacy.

Merkel will not leave behind the kind of historical footprint that her predecessors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl did. The former is lauded for having embedded West Germany firmly in the club of Western democracies while Kohl is irrevocably tied to German reunification. But in her own way, Merkel has transformed the CDU more fundamentally than any party leader before her. She has pushed the party so far to the center that it is hardly distinguishable anymore from its political competitors.

Merkel considers the shift part of a sorely needed modernization process. Her opponents, though, see it as a mistake of historical proportions and one that helped sow the rise of theright-wing-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. They believe the shift should be reversed. That conviction is feeding the bitter power struggle that is being carried out behind the scenes. At stake isn't just who should lead the party in the future, but also whether the CDU should swerve to the right once Merkel is gone.

Nobody is as symbolic of the counter-revolution as Jens Spahn, the 38-year-old lawmaker who fought his way into a party leadership position against Merkel's will and who is now health minister in her cabinet. Spahn has plenty of allies, but most of them are not members of the CDU. Christian Lindner, head of the business-friendly Free Democrats, is among them, as is Alexander Dobrindt of the CSU.

He still lacks sufficient support within the party, which means the Brinkhaus revolt came too early for him. The same holds true for CDU General Secretary Kramp-Karrenbauer, who's Achilles heel is her closeness to Merkel. It could be that others may now vie for party leadership positions who have thus far managed to conceal their ambition.

'I'm Still Fresh'

In short, things have become unsettled at the top of the CDU. For years, the party has been led from the top down, but now, the grassroots are taking the reins. Public opinion poll results are so disastrous at the moment that faith in party leadership is eroding. In Saxony, it is even possible that the AfD will beat out the CDU in state elections next year. When the Saxony chapter of the CDU voted last week on its new floor leader in state parliament, members chose to disregard the suggestion of Governor Michael Kretschmer, instead opting for Christian Hartmann, who does not rule out the possibility of forming a coalition with the AfD. The CDU in the state of Hesse, where elections are looming this month, has also grown rebellious, choosing to ignore personnel recommendations of party head Volker Bouffier.

Merkel, for her part, has indicated publicly that she isn't going to go without a fight. During an event last Thursday hosted by the Augsburg-based daily Augsburger Allgemeine, she answered "that remains absolutely valid" to a question as to whether the party leadership and the position of chancellor must be held by the same person. When asked if she intended to run for yet another term, she said "now is not the time to make such a decision." She also made it clear that she doesn't see her tenure has having reached its end. "I'm still fresh," she said.

The question, though, is whether she still holds her own political future in her hands. State elections in Bavaria on Oct. 14 and in Hesse two weeks later will be decisive. Should conservatives manage to get a halfway acceptable result, it would be easier for Merkel to run for another term as CDU leader.

But survey numbers are terrible in both Bavaria and in Hesse. If disaster strikes in the two elections, then Merkel will have to decide what to do at the upcoming party convention. Among party leaders, two options are under discussion: The chancellor could run again for the position of party leader and declare it a vote of confidence in her chancellorship. Or she could vacate the post of party chair and try to install a candidate of her choice.

If Merkel were to vacate the post, it is almost certain that her hand-picked successor would face competition. Kramp-Karrenbauer would likely face a challenge from Armin Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and probably also from Spahn, who has made it clear in the past that he is not interested in leaving party leadership positions to the liberal wing without a fight. Even if Merkel runs again, it is possible that someone will run against her. Brinkhaus' success has demonstrated that taking a political risk can pay off.

One factor, though, is advantageous for Merkel: Her adversaries are largely unprepared. Spahn has confided in his biographer Michael Bröcker: "I am now well-known. I still need to become well-loved." He still has a long way to go. Even sympathetic party allies have been annoyed by his very public rapport with U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell and with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Climbing the Power Ladder

Spahn's primary adversary, Kramp-Karrenbauer, is well-liked in the party, but she hasn't yet solidified her power base to the degree necessary. Her plans are more long-term, though she did recently show -- in the conflict surrounding Hans-Georg Maassen, the erstwhile head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency -- that she is willing to distance herself from Merkel if need be.

Laschet has perhaps the best chances. He is head of the largest CDU state chapter, and if the party were to lose the upcoming election in Hesse, he would be by far the most influential CDU governor in the country. In contrast to Kramp-Karrenbauer, he currently occupies an important office, is entitled to speak in German parliament and also can introduce laws in the Bundesrat, the lawmaking body that represents the German states. Laschet also has a keen awareness of his opponents' weaknesses -- and has surely noted how difficult it has been for both Kramp-Karrenbauer and Spahn to develop the gravitas necessary to take the next step up the power ladder.

At CDU headquarters in Berlin, the assumption is that Merkel will decide on her course of action just before the party convention. And it's not just the party leadership position that is at stake. Many in the CDU would like to see Merkel give up the Chancellery prior to the 2021 general election to give her successor the incumbent advantage. Such a move, however, would require the Social Democrats to give their support, as junior coalition partner, and it isn't clear why the center-left party would do such a thing.

On Tuesday afternoon, shortly after Kauder's defeat, SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil sent a text message to members of his party's leadership, just to be safe. "Dear presidium, a note from Andrea," he wrote, referring to SPD leader Andrea Nahles. "This is their disaster. They should explain themselves. I'll thank Kauder. I'll congratulate Brinkhaus. We don't need to do anything more in the next 12 hours. Please."

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