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

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.

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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.


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