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04/23/2013 06:09 PM

Rebel in the Ranks

Gutsy Minister Gives Glimpse of Life After Merkel

By , and

German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen has angered Germany's conservatives by openly challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel's authority with her fight for a gender quota. Yet with her bold, risk-taking approach to politics, she also offers an alternative to the chancellor's hesitant style.

Ursula von der Leyen knows what she wants. At this particular moment, it's a photo with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It is last Tuesday, shortly after 3 p.m., and the German labor minister has just taken a seat in the first row of the room where lawmakers from the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), meet. They're expected to support a change in policy on the gender quota issue, and the newspapers are writing that von der Leyen has outmaneuvered Merkel. The minister is about to issue a denial, complete with a photo op.

Merkel averted a potentially embarrassing defeat in parliament last week when rebel members of her center-right coalition, led by von der Leyen, accepted a compromise plan to require German companies to put more women on their boards. Under the deal, the CDU will include in its campaign platform a pledge obliging big firms to raise the proportion of women on supervisory boards to 30 percent in 2020.

Now the victorious von der Leyen is chatting with journalists in the midst of the commotion, but her eyes are darting around the room. Where is the chancellor?

Then she spots Merkel. The chancellor usually comes in through a door on the right, to avoid walking past the waiting cameras. But today Merkel enters the room from the other side, together with Minister of Family Affairs Kristina Schröder. Everyone in the room, including von der Leyen, understands the move in the way it was intended: as support for the stumbling Schröder and as a veiled reprimand of the labor minister.

Von der Leyen jumps up, mumbles that she has something to take care of, and then makes her way through the crowd. Merkel has already left Schröder behind, as von der Leyen meanders toward her. She places her hand on the chancellor's arm, smiles and behaves as if she had something urgent to discuss with her.

Merkel goes along with her little performance. What good would it do her if the papers reported photos of a grouchy chancellor the next day? Instead, the two women smile at each other and chat amiably as the cameras click and buzz around them.

It is a lesson in the art of political stagecraft. Since last week, it's evident that von der Leyen is no longer the chancellor's underling. For a brief moment, she challenged Merkel's authority. She imposed her stamp on the party and pushed through the gender quota -- against the will of the pro-business wing of the party, against the will of the grumbling CDU governors of Germany's regional states and against the will of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's CDU.

Merkel Has Been Made to Look Vulnerable

Is von der Leyen trying to topple the queen? Not quite. She won a victory, but she did not emerge from the battle unscathed. She has alienated many in her party. Some were grumbling last week that she had blackmailed the party. She has also disappointed all those women who had indulged in the illusion that the minister would eventually sacrifice herself for the quota.

Von der Leyen has got people in the CDU thinking about what life may look like after Merkel. At present, the chancellor remains unchallenged. Some 68 percent of Germans are satisfied with Merkel. In the CDU, she's seen as a guarantor that the party will remain in power for a third term. But von der Leyen has demonstrated that it is possible to diverge from the policies of the chancellor, who is so fond of saying that there are no alternatives to those very policies.

Who might succeed Merkel one day? On the one hand, there is the rebellious von der Leyen, who unsettles the CDU and its officials but has the ability to fascinate voters. On the other hand, there is the reliable Thomas de Maizière, the defense minister, who can soothe the soul of the party but also has the tendency to put voters to sleep.

Most of all, the dispute over the gender quota has revealed that Merkel's system of power is vulnerable; that Merkel, whose success is based on minimizing risk and drama, can be forced to do something by a woman who does not shy away from risks and knows how to exploit the dramatic side of politics.

The relationship between Merkel and von der Leyen is complicated. They are rivals, and yet they complement each other. Von der Leyen has expressed things that the chancellor didn't dare say, as with the expansion of public daycare and, most recently, the gender quota. In this sense, the dispute over the quota issue is reminiscent of the story of the sorcerer's apprentice. Merkel and von der Leyen toyed with the gender quota, and in the end they were unable to rid themselves of the spirits they had conjured up.

The drama began in mid-September 2012, when European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding proposed a guideline designed to prescribe a mandatory women's quota for supervisory boards in all EU countries. Reding and von der Leyen are on good terms, but Merkel made it clear to her labor minister that she would not support the Brussels venture.

Vote Came About by Accident

Merkel wanted to avoid a dispute on the issue. Her coalition was already fractious enough, and she knew that the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in the coalition with Merkel's conservatives, regarded the quota as devilish red tape. At the same time, she was sympathetic with von der Leyen, who had publicly outed herself as a supporter of the quota. Although Merkel could not openly support her labor minister, she had nothing against the impression being created that the CDU was slightly in favor of the quota, knowing that it also had the potential to generate a few more female votes.

According to sources close to von der Leyen, in her conversations with Merkel, the minister eventually gained the impression that in future votes on the quota, she would no longer have to vote against her convictions. However, both women assumed that there would be no further movement on the quota until after the general election in September.

It was a miscalculation.

On the evening of Sept. 20, Merkel met with the CDU/CSU state governors at the permanent representation of the western state of Hesse in Berlin. The Bundesrat, the legislative body that represents the German states, met the next morning. A motion for a gender quota by the senate of the city-state of Hamburg, controlled by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was on the agenda. The chancellor approached Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the governor of the southwestern state of Saarland, who wanted to vote for the draft legislation. This could become dangerous, Merkel hissed, but Kramp-Karrenbauer was undeterred. The Hamburg motion was accepted in the Bundesrat.

Now Merkel was playing for time, trying to delay a debate on the quota. With their majority in the Bundestag, the CDU/CSU and the FDP had enough options at their disposal to delay unwanted proposals with endless hearings and meetings.

But a serious mishap occurred on March 15, 2013. The Hamburg motion was being reviewed by the judiciary committee of the Bundestag. Apparently no one had filled in the committee members about Merkel's delay tactics, and so the CDU members did what they always do: They organized a majority in the committee against the SPD motion.

But this meant that, according to the party statutes, the path was now clear for a vote in the Bundestag. If the committee had wanted to delay the matter, it should not have adopted a resolution. Even before the Easter recess, it was clear that the quota would be on the parliament's agenda on April 18.

Now the supporters of the quota within the CDU/CSU started getting into position, led by von der Leyen. She let it be known that she could imagine siding with the opposition in the Bundestag vote. Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker, a CDU Bundestag member from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, got on the phone and tried to convince fellow female members to vote yes on the Hamburg motion.

Merkel was still on her Easter vacation on the Italian island of Ischia, but she must have anticipated the kind of problem she was about to face. If von der Leyen publicly campaigned for the quota, it could lead to a collapse of the entire coalition.

'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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