He was "Mr. Grand Coalition." No other member of the Social Democrats (SPD) was better placed to represent the party in the coalition government than Vice Chancellor and Labor Minister Franz Müntefering.
While he had originally regarded Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU) as inept, he then led the SPD into a grand coalition with her, ensuring that she became chancellor. While he often supported her in government, recently he had been going his own way again, particularly when it came to the issue of a minimum wage for German postal workers -- a move critics say would have killed potential competitors to Deutsche Post, which is being a forced to give up its monopoly position by the end of the year.
He was one of the weathered old SPD veterans and became the chancellor's most loyal colleague. He was the credible connection between the SPD in government and the SPD political party.
The grand coalition is now losing an important "cornerstone," CDU sources told SPIEGEL ONLINE after the announcement that Müntefering would resign. Chancellor Merkel declared her "respect and recognition of our good work together." Hesse Governor Roland Koch said that Müntefering had always been a "cornerstone of the coalition," adding, "now the SPD has to ensure that his replacement is organized so that the government can remain stable and continue its work." CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla called on the SPD to "fill the void left behind quickly."
The key question on Tuesday was whether SPD leader Kurt Beck would join Merkel's government or stay on in his current position as governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Both the SPD and Merkel's conservatives predicted he would stay on in the state capital Mainz in order to prepare his candidacy to be chancellor in 2009. Besides, few really expected the SPD boss to volunteer to be subjected to the rigorous discipline of Merkel's cabinet.
Only Saarland's Governor Peter Müller (CDU) had encouraged Beck to move to Berlin, asking "if it would not be desirable to have the heads of both the CDU and the SPD in the cabinet." However, Erwin Huber, the head of the CDU's Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), does not have a cabinet post.
Beck put an end to the speculation on Tuesday afternoon when he announced that he would not be taking over either of Müntefering's posts. Instead, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take over Müntefering's role as vice chancellor; while Olaf Scholz, currently the SPD parliamentary floor manager, will take over as labor minister. Scholz, a labor lawyer, is regarded as an experienced authority in this field. And he is well equipped for a job in the cabinet: He has worked closely with the CDU parliamentary floor manager Norbert Röttgen to manage and defend the grand coalition in parliament.
The CDU and CSU would be happy with Scholz's appointment, but he would not bring the same level of personality and political weight as Müntefering did.
Scholz is expected to pick up where Müntefering left off on the issue of a minimum wage. During the summer he had been irritated by the chancellor's reluctance to bring in a general across-the-board minimum wage. "I was always a team player but I can also go on the attack," he told his parliamentary party in a special meeting.
Even on Monday evening, during the coalition talks at the Chancellery in Berlin, the issue of the minimum wage -- or more precisely a minimum wage for the postal industry -- loomed large. And Merkel was still playing it tough: The CDU presented three proposals that were obviously unacceptable to the SPD and then the issue was buried. Müntefering was deeply disappointed and accused the CDU of not keeping to its promises.
But during the talks Müntefering was much more reserved than Beck or SPD floor leader Peter Struck, and sources at the meeting told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he didn't get involved in the discussions very much.
However, no one in the CDU or in the SPD is talking about any connection between Müntefering's resignation and the failure to push through a minimum wage for postal workers. All those present were aware of his wife's very poor health.
While Müntefering was regarded by the CDU as a tough negotiator on the minimum wage, Merkel regarded him as a close ally in her reluctance to extend unemployment benefits. It was Müntefering who led the defense against Beck's calls for an extension for the period older people are entitled to full benefits. When things got particularly tense between the two SPD politicians, sources in the CDU said: "The chancellor has an interest in saving Müntefering."
Now Merkel has lost a second minister, following the hasty departure of former CSU boss Edmund Stoiber in 2005, who was the designated economics minister. Stoiber fled the chancellor's evident strength and used Müntefering's resignation as SPD party leader as the pretext. His excuse: if the then newly-elected SPD leader Matthias Platzeck was not in the cabinet, then he as CSU leader should also be able to criticize the government from the outside.
Stoiber no longer poses a threat to Merkel: He is no longer the leader of the CSU and won't be running for the position of chancellor again. But things are different when it comes to Kurt Beck. He seems to intend to stay outside the cabinet, in order to secure his position for the 2009 elections.
Now, with Müntefering out of the picture, Beck is the undisputed leader of the Social Democrats. And over the next few months Angela Merkel is sure to miss her old cornerstone and stabilizing influence, Franz Müntefering.