New government

Introducing Germany's biggest political losers

Sigmar Gabriel
Don't look back, Sigmar. Source: DPA

The new German government is slowly taking shape. Cabinet posts have been handed out and local political editors are requesting profiles of the winners from journalists as you read this. But what of the losers? Several senior and popular politicians from the three parties that will form the country’s new “grand coalition,” as it is known, are losing their jobs.

Both the center-left Social Democrats, or SPD, and the center-right Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, lost a lot of support in last year’s elections – and some older, experienced and, in some cases, critical colleagues have been sacrificed at the altar of  political renewal.

Comparative youth is the main characteristic of the new cabinet. The median age of the new German ministers, including the politicians responsible for development and integration, is now a sprightly 45 – it used to be closer to 60. In fact, at 63, Ms. Merkel is one of the two oldest members of her new cabinet.

Some of the senior ministers are giving up their portfolios willingly, such as the economics minister and former justice minister: Brigitte Zypries is retiring from politics aged 64. And mathematics professor Johanna Wanka, 66 and the CDU’s current minister for education and research, made it clear back in September that she didn’t want the job if it meant another coalition with the SPD.

But other soon-to-be-former ministers were less happy to go.

Some of the older ministers gave up their portfolios willingly. Other soon-to-be-former ministers were less happy to go.

Interior minister Thomas de Maizière, criticized for his outspoken opinions on subjects like immigration, was forced to give his portfolio to arch-conservative Horst Seehofer, the head of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. This is one of only two cases where a younger minister was replaced by an older one. Mr. de Maizière is 64, his successor is 68. But this is because the interior ministry will now include a new portfolio, “Heimat,” or homeland, supposedly a sop to conservative voters, who fear the long-running centrist government is too complacent about their worries about immigration and Germany’s changing culture.

Mr. de Maizière isn’t so sure about the change. He told local media that the interior ministry was already too big, that it didn’t make sense to add a department for homeland, and that the best interior ministers should have legal expertise because they deal with constitutional law. That’s something Mr. Seehofer doesn’t have.

Former minister of health, CDU politician and a close ally of Ms. Merkel, Hermann Gröhe, 57, didn’t seem too happy about losing his post either. He told reporters that heading a ministry always “has an expiry date.” In his stead, Ms. Merkel has appointed one of her staunchest critics, Jens Spahn, who is 20 years younger. Analysts say Ms. Merkel is keeping her enemies close and bowing to the pressure to re-energize the party rather than rewarding confidantes. At the same time, it is a nod to the CDU’s own youth wing, many of whom are apparently fans of Mr. Spahn.

On the outside Thomas de Maizière Interior minister Thomas de Maizière will stay on as an ordinary MP. Mr. de Maizière said that he would be happy to have more time for himself. Source: DPA
Off to economics Peter Altmaier Being tight with the boss did not help finance minister Peter Altmaier hang on to that particular ministry. Source: Bloomberg
Back to the benches Hermann Gröhe His exit apparently came as something of a surprise to health minister Hermann Gröhe. He had wanted to keep the job and had also been tipped as a potential education minister but ended up with neither post. Source: DPA
Work-life balance Johanna Wanka Mathematics professor and minister of education, Johanna Wanka, was happy to give up her portfolio. She says she wants to spend more time with her family. Source: DPA
Happy to retire Brigitte Zypries The successor to Sigmar Gabriel at the economics ministry has only been in the job a year. Before that she was Mr. Gabriel's deputy and served as justice minister from 2002 to 2009. She is retiring from politics and told reporters she would be happy not to have to plan every minute of her day. Source: DPA
Road warrior Christian Schmidt The soon-to-be-former transport minister from the CSU will stay on as an ordinary MP. He had only been in the job since late 2017 when he took over from his CSU colleague, Alexander Dobrindt. He had wanted to keep the job but the CSU traded in this ministry for the interior and homeland ministry. Source: DPA
Out of the woods Barbara Hendricks The minister for the environment will stay on as an ordinary MP for the Social Democrats. DPA

Ms. Merkel has described the departure of the two latter colleagues as “a painful decision.”

Peter Altmaier, another close, long-term ally of Ms. Merkel, didn’t have his wishes granted either. The 58-year-old had been temporarily looking after the all-powerful ministry of finance, but once this went to the SPD, he had to be satisfied with the lesser economy ministry. Those who know him suggest that Mr. Altmaier will try and give his new portfolio more import than in the recent past.

As for the Social Democrats and the six ministerial posts they had to fill, they chose to dispense with the services of Barbara Hendricks, 65, as minister for the environment. Ms. Hendricks had been a vocal critic of her own party and the German government for not sticking to its environmental protection goals. In opposition to the last coalition government, she had advocated a special designation for diesel vehicles. She was known as a straight talker who did not avoid uncomfortable ideas.  “A lot of people respected her for that,” said SPD colleague Norbert Killewald.

Ms. Hendricks is being replaced by Svenja Schulze, a relatively unknown politician from the same state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Ms. Schulze is 49 and fulfills the SPD’s aims to represent that state as well as support gender equity – three men, three women – for the party’s ministerial posts. In the past, Ms. Schulze, who is considered a generalist, has commented on the need to change the SPD, to communicate better and to come up with an effective strategy for social media.

And that is another trait of some of the new ministers: They are relatively unknown to the German public and even, in some cases, inexperienced at the federal level. Critics might suggest that relative inexperience and a low profile doesn’t just bring in fresh blood, it also makes the new guard easier to handle than their prickly predecessors.

Which brings us to the biggest loser: Germany’s soon-to-be-ex foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel. The senior Social Democrat is still one of the country’s most popular politicians and he campaigned hard to keep the job. However, internal fights with the new party leadership have now seen him sidelined. The new leaders, Andrea Nahles and Olaf Scholz, have long been critics of their unpredictable diplomat. His ouster doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the SPD’s need for fresh faces and may, given his popularity with voters, eventually count against the party. After years at the top of the SPD in various positions, Mr. Gabriel, 58, will now have to be happy with an ordinary seat in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.

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Cathrin Schaer is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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