Wolfgang Schäuble

German Vote Claims Biggest Victim

The best known German politician after Chancellor Angela Merkel is leaving the international stage. Picture source: Reuters

Norbert Lammert is not a household name outside Germany. In fact, he’s hardly a household name inside the country. The veteran Christian Democrat holds the office of president of the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament. It is a position about as prestigious and obscure as that of speaker of the House of Commons in Britain. (For those still puzzling over that one, the current incumbent is John Bercow.)

And yet this is the job Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, probably the best known German politician after Chancellor Angela Merkel, is going to take on in the wake of his party’s setback in this week’s federal elections. The architect of Germany unity, the discoverer of the balanced budget and the iron fist in the euro crisis, who has been a top minister in government 19 of his 45 years in parliament, will not be part of Ms. Merkel’s fourth government.

His gracious concession to what is a demotion in any but the most technical sense – the Bundestag president actually ranks just behind the federal president and ahead of the chancellor in the official protocol – is typical of the team player Mr. Schäuble has always been. In stepping down as finance minister, he frees what many see as the most powerful post in the cabinet for Ms. Merkel to use as a bargaining chip in her talks to form a new coalition.

It is, literally, the least the party could do for a member of Mr. Schäuble’s distinction, short of inviting the 75-year-old to enjoy complete retirement.

Mr. Schäuble will now be relegated to parliamentary duties – not exactly as a backbencher but not in any position to influence policy, either. It is, literally, the least the party could do for a member of Mr. Schäuble’s distinction, short of inviting the 75-year-old to enjoy complete retirement.

Of course, it may be a holding position for the time when an appropriate European post – president of the European Commission, president of the European Council – becomes available. But a departure from the international stage won’t help because politics is a profession where “out of sight, out of mind” rules absolutely.

Certainly Mr. Schäuble’s Christian Democratic colleagues were protesting too much as the announcement came out. The powerful finance minister, long thought to be a candidate for chancellor until a bullet from a would-be assassin confined him to a wheelchair, is not being “pushed out.” The new post is “anything but disrespectful” and certainly not a demotion, they said.

The Bundestag job has become much more important, one talking point had it, because of the entry of a far-right party into the German parliament for the first time in postwar history. That reality will require a strong and authoritative hand to keep them in place when they inevitably attempt to disrupt proceedings. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) crossed the 5-percent threshold for parliamentary representation for the first time with nearly 13 percent of the vote and will have 94 deputies in the 365-seat chamber.

Among the first to congratulate Mr. Schäuble on his nomination and to pledge his support was the man who may want to take his job, Free Democratic Party (FDP) leader Christian Lindner. The FDP, which won nearly 11 percent of the vote, and the Greens, with 9 percent, are the two parties Ms. Merkel must form a coalition with in order to obtain a majority. They will each demand a top cabinet post, such as finance or foreign minister, as the price for joining the government.

Mr. Lindner tweeted his support for Mr. Schäuble, praising him as “an outstanding personality, a natural authority.” If he were to take the finance post, the FDP leader could well out-Schäuble Mr. Schäuble himself, at least on the euro front, because he would have more leeway than his predecessor to cross Ms. Merkel and insist on strict enforcement of conditions for the joint currency, even if it means temporarily suspending a country’s membership. As for balancing the budget, not so much. The FDP is keen to cut taxes and has insisted it wants the finance post to ensure it can carry through on that campaign pledge.

Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union (CSU), lost 8.6 percentage points on their 2013 result, falling to 32.9 percent from 41.5 percent. Mr. Schäuble having to free up his finance post is the biggest consequence, but not the only one. The CSU performed even worse in Bavaria than the CDU nationwide, dropping 10.5 percentage points to just 38.8 percent of the state vote. Joachim Herrmann, who headed the CSU ticket, even failed to win his constituency and won’t take a seat in the new parliament. The CSU had hoped for him to claim the federal interior ministry, to enforce the party’s hard line on domestic security and refugee policy.

Mr. Schäuble had let it be known prior to the election that he would like to continue as finance minister in the new government, and Ms. Merkel’s standing in the polls suggested he would have that option. But the last-minute surge by the AfD, partly at the expense of the CDU/CSU, radically altered the coalition arithmetic. Faced with the prolonged wrangling over a new coalition and the high risk that he would not be able to keep the finance post in any case, insiders suggest, Mr. Schäuble, after consulting with his family, opted for the sure thing with the Bundestag job.

The longest-serving member of parliament, first elected in 1972, Mr. Schäuble is canny enough to have seen the handwriting on the wall as support for the chancellor ebbed. At his birthday celebration last week, Ms. Merkel gave her erstwhile rival and longtime comrade in arms the collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a gift, expressing the hope he would enjoy reading them. Now he will have the time.

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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