Finance Minister

Filling Schäuble’s Shoes

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With apologies to Frank Sinatra: "Put on your dancin' boots and come dance with me." Source: Reuters

Life is good for Wolfgang Kubicki. The deputy chief of Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP) has lived in a tiny, seaside village on Germany’s Baltic coast since 1993 and he likes it there. “I walk from my property across the street to the beach, climb into my boat, call to a friend and go with him across the firth to the fish market, which puts something nice onto the grill,” the 65-year-old politician once said. “That is quality of life.”

Mr. Kubicki is as scathing about the life of Berlin politicians as he is laudatory of his life on the beach. “You could, since you are constantly in appointments, drink all day,” he once said of his colleagues in the German capital. “A bottle of wine is nothing if you spread it across five appointments. And in the evening it really gets started. You go into certain restaurants and you see these already glassy eyes in the red wine faces of your colleagues.”

For all his plainspoken commentary, however, Mr. Kubicki may be ready to trade his beach idyll for the stress of Berlin if, as expected, his party claims the finance post in the new coalition government, and if, as it is becoming clear, FDP chief Christian Lindner elects to lead his party in parliament rather than take a ministerial post. That would make Mr. Kubicki the top candidate to succeed outgoing Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s next government.

“The only ministerial office that would really excite me is that of finance minister. ”

Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy chief, FDP

While the laid-back and often rowdy Mr. Kubicki from Germany’s cool north at first blush seems the polar opposite of Mr. Schäuble, who hailed from the country’s far southwest corner, the two have strikingly similar backgrounds. Both worked as tax advisors and then studied law, going on to pursue a career in politics, starting at the local level and working up to the top ranks of the national party structure. When Mr. Schäuble took over the finance ministry eight years ago, he was two years older than Mr. Kubicki is now.

The two political warhorses are alike, too, in their plain speaking and their popularity in retail politics. Mr. Kubicki’s leadership of the state party in Schleswig-Holstein kept the flicker of hope alive for the FDP as it was banished into political exile in 2013 after failing to clear the 5-percent hurdle to be in the federal parliament. He kept the FDP in play at the state level and in June helped forge the second-only the “Jamaica” coalition of Christian Democrats, FDP and Greens in a state government. (Germany’s political parties are known by their colors – black for Christian Democrats, yellow for the FDP, and, of course, green for the Greens – and these are the colors of the Jamaican flag.)

This is now the coalition that Ms. Merkel must try to forge at the national level, and Mr. Kubicki will play a critical role in those talks. Mr. Schäuble decided earlier this week to free up the finance post precisely to give her more flexibility. The ministry has already become the focus of party strategies in angling for advantage as the talks proceed, with numerous candidates named in the rumor mill despite the big shoes Mr. Schäuble is leaving to fill.

Besides Mr. Kubicki, the FDP itself has other candidates of sufficient stature to take on the job. Werner Hoyer, 66, was a member of parliament for 25 years and served in top political posts in the foreign ministry before taking the sinecure as president of the European Investment Bank in 2012. Also in the wings is Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a scion of old nobility whose uncle, Otto Graf Lambsdorff, was a leading FDP politician and economics minister for seven years under two chancellors. The younger Mr. Lambsdorff, 50, is a former deputy president of the European Parliament.

Either one of these would also be well-suited as foreign minister, but that post is likelier to go to Cem Özdemir, a leader of the Greens, in a Jamaica coalition. Christian Democrats have some candidates for finance, too, but it’s not likely that the party would have Mr. Schäuble free the post only to give it to someone else in the party.

Further complicating the jockeying for position is the title of vice chancellor, which traditionally goes to the junior partner in the coalition. In this unprecedented three-party coalition, the FDP would be the senior junior partner and would no doubt claim the title. While it is traditionally paired with the foreign ministry, Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats during most of the grand coalition’s tenure, carried the title as economics minister.

That role, too, could fall to Mr. Kubicki, who threw his hat in the ring for the finance post already in August as he discussed what it would take to get him to move to Berlin. “The only ministerial office that would really excite me is that of finance minister,” he said in an interview with Handelsblatt at the time.

And in a new interview with Handelsblatt in the wake of the election, Mr. Kubicki was optimistic that the three-way coalition could be formed. “We wouldn’t be a developed democracy if we weren’t in a position to make something reasonable out of the election results,” he said. “We have shown with a Jamaica coalition in Schleswig-Holstein that you can come up with compromises without the partner losing face.”

The success of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which won nearly 13 percent of Sunday’s vote, puts pressure on Ms. Merkel and the parties to come to an agreement. A post-election poll showed that 57 percent of those surveyed now favor the Jamaica coalition solution. But so far Ms. Merkel has taken no steps to form a new government.

“I’m surprised as well that Chancellor Angela Merkel has not yet invited anyone to preliminary talks,” Mr. Kubicki said in his interview. All parties are well aware of what voters expect and would quickly set the ground rules for coalition negotiations, he said, adding the parties will need to agree on basic policies before considering what can be done with posts like finance minister and vice chancellor.

Before taking off for the European Union summit in Tallinn on Thursday, Ms. Merkel jokingly responded to a journalist’s question about forming a new government by telling him to ask Mark Rutte for an answer to that question – the Dutch prime minister has been trying since national elections in March to cobble together a coalition.

Of course, it matters a lot more that Germany has a functioning government, since nothing will get done in Europe until it does. No doubt Mr. Kubicki, a moving force in getting Guido Westerwelle installed as party leader for the 2009 election that earned the FDP nearly 15 percent of the vote, and instrumental in getting Mr. Lindner to lead the party’s comeback, will have a lot to say either behind the scenes or on center stage.

Several Handelsblatt political reporters contributed to this article. Washington, DC-based Darrell Delamaide wrote this version for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: D.Delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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