There is a rule of thumb in the Berlin media bubble: Whenever there is a political earthquake of great magnitude, the number of wise men who had predicted the quake for a long time suddenly increases when it occurs. But on the day when Angela Merkel’s dramatic erosion of power was exposed by the defeat of her henchman Volker Kauder, this was surprisingly not the case.
Hardly anyone had bet on the underdog Ralph Brinkhaus in Tuesday’s vote for floor leader of the sister parties, CDU and CSU. He himself seemed the most surprised by the result. The chancellor and CSU chairman Horst Seehofer went too far out on a limb ahead of the vote, urging the CDU/CSU caucus to “keep it up.” The only open question was how many votes Mr. Kauder would receive above 50 percent.
In retrospect, it is clear how great the frustration of the CDU/CSU members must have been when the parliamentary group – well aware of the importance of this personnel question – refused to follow the chancellor. It was an uprising against the Merkel system, embodied by absolute loyalty to the government. Volker Kauder stood for this system like no other.
Angela Merkel’s strategic mistake entering the last few years of her chancellorship certainly was not to lay the groundwork for an orderly transition. With the realization that she would remain head of government until 2021 at the most, party members inevitably had to turn their attention to the question: What then? Starting with the announcement of the exit date, Ms. Merkel had made herself a lame-duck chancellor.
So it was clear that change would come. But there was no sign that the change would take the form of replacing personnel. In this respect, the signal given by the election of Ralph Brinkhaus as parliamentary floor leader is encouraging. The fact that the CDU/CSU caucus has now resisted the Merkel system shows greater self-confidence in parliament. And it can be assumed that parliament will once again become the forum for political debates – and will not merely serve the purpose of the caucus reading the government policy directives out loud. Because Ralph Brinkhaus must deliver on this point. He has aroused this expectation among his sympathizers.
We are currently witnessing how quickly Angela Merkel’s power is eroding. Be it in the embarrassing farce surrounding the demotion of domestic security chief Hans-Georg Maassen or at the annual conference with business leaders, where she apologetically accepted the harsh criticism of government policy, or now with the Kauder vote. Every time she had to admit mistakes or misjudgments. In the 13 years of her chancellorship, she has seldom had to show herself publicly so humble as in the past few days.
And when a CDU member of parliament, Armin Schuster, now publicly declares that the chancellor must serve as moderator for changing of the guard so that the CDU/CSU is well positioned for the election in 2020, it shows how little her own party still expects of her. A chancellor as “moderator” who has to endure an alternative chancellor choice in what is presumably the last year of her term of office? Unthinkable. This is how she is exposed to ridicule.
The chancellor’s political disintegration will accelerate in the coming weeks and months. When the executive board elections take place in the CDU at the end of the year, she will certainly no longer be available as party chair. Because she will also receive the signal from the party: “For the transition it is necessary to separate chancellorship and party chairmanship.” Or: “We have to introduce a credible longer-term transition.” Angela Merkel will be aware that she has missed the chance to abdicate with dignity.
The twilight of the chancellor is in full swing. Despite the prospect that the German government will find itself in waters even more difficult to navigate, hopes of a strengthening a culture of genuine debate have been growing since Tuesday.
The fact that the CDU/CSU caucus apparently no longer wants to be degraded to a chancellor’s little voting club opens up the possibility of responding to a large number of issues that have been largely ignored in political discourse or left to the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Thus last Tuesday can actually turn into a catalyst for change that can only be good for our democracy.
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