Roland Koch, the governor of the wealthy German state of Hesse and a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), stunned his party on Tuesday by announcing his resignation from all his political offices in the coming months.
Koch, 52, a conservative hardliner, frequently stoked controversy by waging election campaigns that were widely seen as xenophobic. He told reporters on Tuesday that he had achieved his political goals and planned to switch to a new position in business. He said he had not yet made up his mind what that role would be.
"Politics is a fascinating part of my life but politics isn't my life," Koch, deputy leader of the CDU, told a press conference in Wiesbaden, the capital of Hesse. He said there were no health reasons for his departure.
At one time, Koch, who has been governor of Hesse since 1999, was one of Merkel's biggest rivals in the CDU, but he was weakened by his role in the CDU's party funding scandal in 1999. Merkel was able to sideline him within the party and she won the CDU's nomination for the chancellorship in 2005. She went on to win the general election that year.
In recent weeks, Koch had been tipped as a possible successor to Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's wheelchair-bound finance minister who has faced numerous health problems in recent weeks. Koch also made headlines by opposing Merkel's plans for an increase in financial aid for students and for demanding cuts in the education sector.
CDU Will Lose Right-Wing Vote-Catcher
Koch's departure will rid Merkel of a sometimes outspoken critic within the CDU's ranks. But it will also deprive the CDU of a right-wing populist who attracted votes with at times brazen attacks on immigrants.
In 1999, he staged a signature gathering campaign against allowing dual citizenship -- a move clearly aimed at attracting those skeptical of Germany's growing Turkish population. The campaign resulted in his first term as governor of Hesse.
He played the xenophobia card again in state elections in 2008. But Koch's populism backfired when he lost his majority after waging a campaign against "criminal young foreigners." He managed to hold onto power because rival parties couldn't muster a majority to oust him in the Hesse state assembly, and he won a stable center-right majority with the pro-business Free Democrats in 2009 after calling a new election.
Koch said on Tuesday he had informed Merkel of his plan to leave politics more than a year ago. He will step down as governor of Hesse, home to Germany's financial capital Frankfurt, on August 31. CDU sources told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he plans initially to return to his former profession as a lawyer for a few months, and that he might then join a top German company.
"You won't see me on Hesse's list of pensioners for a very long time," Koch said. Several German media reported that Koch's successor as governor of Hesse will be the state's current interior minister, Volker Bouffier.
"This is a big loss for the CDU, the state of Hesse and the country," said Michael Meister, a senior CDU parliamentarian in Berlin. He called Koch a "great politician who voiced his positions with unusual clarity."