Rebel in the Ranks Gutsy Minister Gives Glimpse of Life After Merkel

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Part 2: 'I Have My Convictions'


On April 10, Merkel's confidant, CDU/CSU parliamentary group chairman Volker Kauder, took the labor minister to task. During a breakfast attended by CDU/CSU ministers prior to the cabinet meeting, Kauder took von der Leyen aside and appealed to her conscience. "You can't do this," he protested. "A cabinet member cannot vote with the opposition." Von der Leyen was not about to be intimidated. "I have my convictions," she replied. When Merkel entered the room, she saw Kauder and von der Leyen and knew immediately what they were discussing. "We have a meeting at noon," she said to von der Leyen.

The two women met, and Merkel tried to make it clear to von der Leyen that the situation had changed considerably since their last conversation about the quota. At the time, both women had assumed that it wouldn't come to a vote. Now the fate of the coalition hinged on von der Leyen's vote. Merkel was in a difficult position. She could simply fire von der Leyen. The chancellor certainly doesn't lack the necessary cold-bloodedness, as she demonstrated when she abruptly sacked Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen last year.

But Merkel doesn't want to forfeit von der Leyen. The minister has the ability to attract young, modern women to the CDU, people who in the past wouldn't have dreamed of voting for the conservatives. What good would it do Merkel to fire von der Leyen?

The two women left their meeting without reaching an agreement, but then the situation became increasingly dramatic. Female CDU/CSU members of the Bundestag quietly prepared a joint motion with the opposition, and von der Leyen was kept in the loop. The motion called for 30 percent of supervisory board members to be women in the future. Renate Künast, the head of the Green Party's parliamentary group, had the document reviewed by her legal advisors to prevent the CDU/CSU leadership from finding out about it. She assumed that the deal was on with the conservative rebels.

On Friday, April 12, Merkel made a call to CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer. With a sigh, she told him that all appeals to von der Leyen had been in vain. Seehofer was alarmed. He had already made it clear that his party would vote no on the quota, but now he decided to become more flexible on the issue. A victory by the opposition would cause, said Seehofer. "The damage would extend beyond this one vote," he warned Merkel.

Merkel spent much of the weekend on the phone, weighing and then discarding possible compromises. This is what the solution looked like in the end: Her party would vote against the quota in the Bundestag, but in return the gender quota would be included in the joint election platform of the CDU and CSU. Merkel and Seehofer expected that the compromise would defuse the vote on Thursday and that the quota debate would come to an end in the CDU/CSU for the foreseeable future. Both politicians made a virtue out of necessity. Seehofer consulted with the CSU leadership, and in the end he told Merkel: "We'll support the solution."

Now von der Leyen had to be convinced. On Sunday, she attended a regional CDU meeting in Berlin. Merkel contacted von der Leyen, who told her colleagues: "A solution is taking shape."

But she still wasn't convinced, fearing that the CSU could back away from the compromise. Merkel asked von der Leyen to speak with Seehofer. The minister sent the CSU chairman a text message late Sunday evening, but he had already turned off his mobile phone. The next morning he replied: "Am just seeing your text message. Am available to talk." He was on the phone with von der Leyen before long and said to her: "I'll stick to my agreement."

But the battle wasn't won yet, as far as von der Leyen was concerned. She wanted the leadership to openly express its commitment. Only after Kauder had defended the compromise in the conservative parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday was the labor minister satisfied.

It was a victory, but there was nothing to celebrate, as von der Leyen realized when she addressed the meeting. It was eerily quiet, hardly a hand was lifted in applause, and a few attendees couldn't help but laugh cynically when von der Leyen said: "I'm struggling with this." After all, it was von der Leyen who was imposing her will on the entire parliamentary group. "In politics, you're not self-employed," Family Minister Schröder blurted out. Merkel thought it was a fitting remark.

Former Allies

The story of the two women is also a story of political estrangement. When Merkel brought von der Leyen into Berlin politics 11 years ago, the two got along famously. It was precisely their effective division of labor that made the team so successful. As family minister, von der Leyen opened doors that Merkel didn't want to touch, for fear of risking conflict with the traditionalists in her party.

But their relationship changed with the 2009 parliamentary election. Merkel did not appoint von der Leyen to the post of health minister, a position she had coveted. When President Horst Köhler resigned in 2010, Merkel led von der Leyen to believe that she would be his replacement, only to nominate Christian Wulff instead.

For the first time, von der Leyen spoke of emancipating herself from Merkel. And yet she did nothing that could be perceived as disloyal. It would never have occurred to her to ponder Merkel's deficits and shortcomings in a semi-public manner, as Röttgen had had a tendency to do.

Still, she began to distance herself from Merkel. One of von der Leyen's strengths is to use her own story to validate her policies. When she opened an exhibition on immigration in Germany last Wednesday in Berlin, she talked about her experiences as a young academic at Stanford University in the United States. "They used to say: We're happy that you're here," she said, to the delight of the young women in the audience. Von der Leyen has achieved something they too want to achieve: to prevail in a men's world.

But her approach no longer works as well since von der Leyen became labor minister. Issues like pensions for low-income workers and the Hartz IV welfare reforms have little to do with von der Leyen's life. The medical doctor has seven children, was born in Brussels and lived in Britain and the United States. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was a CDU state premier for Lower Saxony from 1976 to 1990.

Von der Leyen has an extremely committed approach to politics. It worked well when she sought to expand public daycare. But it can also go wrong, as it did last summer when she fanned fears of poverty among the elderly and proposed an inadequate solution in the form of a life achievement pension.

The chancellor doesn't shape her biography into a big political narrative. At a forum hosted by the German business newspaper Handelsblatt at the German Historical Museum in Berlin last Thursday evening, the guests expected her to comment on images from the last 20 years of her career. It promised to be an interesting experience, especially when the legendary photo of Merkel speaking to fishermen in their hut on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen appeared on the screen. But Merkel said little about the images and only began talking more when the conversation switched to the debt crisis in Japan.

Von der Leyen Takes Risks -- Merkel Doesn't

Merkel differs from her labor minister in that she doesn't treat politics as an adventure playground. She once took a risk, in the 2005 election campaign, when she promised the Germans a tough reform program, including tax hikes. It almost cost her the election. She has steered clear of such experiments ever since.

Von der Leyen, on the other hand, sees politics as a game, at least in part, not unlike Seehofer and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. She loves making a big splash, knowing that she could either end up looking like a wet poodle or setting off the right kind of wave.

The final outcome of the dispute over the quota isn't clear yet. Of course, Seehofer has promised that the CSU will also vote for it. "The chancellor can depend on the CSU standing behind its commitment," he says. But the critics are already coming forward. "We don't feel that the issue is resolved. I expect lively debates within the party leadership," says CSU Bundestag member Max Straubinger. "The question of how many women work in a company is up to the company." Former party leader Erwin Huber says: "It is part of the basic principle of the conservative parties that we strengthen self-reliance within industry and do not boss businesses around. This applies to setting wages, and it should also apply to the quota."

It's last Thursday, and von der Leyen is sitting in her office with a bouquet of tulips on the table. She is exhausted. The struggle has sapped her strength, and she still isn't sure how the issue will end for her.

Will she be a winner or a loser? Von der Leyen has no illusions, knowing that she hasn't made any friends in the party. On the other hand, she hopes that the party's support for the quota will generate votes in the upcoming national election. She is also receiving more and more requests for election campaign appearances. The same people who are now complaining about her are also eager to be associated with her come election time. In other words, she can't exactly be that unpopular.

At the weekend, CDU lawmaker Erika Steinbach, incensed at rumors that von der Leyen had struck a secret deal with the opposition to browbeat her party into submission on the gender quota, called on the minister to resign. So far, no one else in the CDU has publicly followed suit. Von der Leyen's spokesman has vehemently denied reports that she agreed to side with the opposition. And in a sign that Merkel still stands by von der Leyen, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday that the chancellor's faith in von der Leyen "remains unbroken."

Her goal now is to look to the future. She has taken the weekend off. Politics isn't on the agenda, but her daughter's confirmation is.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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