Mounting revolt

How the Merkel rebellion begins

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Watching her flanks. Source: DPA

These days, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the “Mutti” of the nation, is discovering just how challenging motherhood can be when the house is full of rancorous kids.

Germany’s most popular leader since post-war reconstruction architect Konrad Adenauer is facing stinging criticism from loyal senior members of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and others who feel she made too many concessions to the rival Social Democratic Party (SPD) to renew their coalition and stay in power.

Such public dissent over her leadership is surprising in a party of otherwise true-blue conservative loyalists. A revolt is simmering.

Although there’s no immediate successor to Ms. Merkel in sight, her authority is clearly being questioned by her party’s fiscal and social conservatives, young activists and opponents of her open-door refugee policy, which helped propel the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist party on the far right, into parliament. “It’s clear to everyone that the chancellor is facing her final stint,” EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger, a CDU member, told public radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

“I understand the disappointment.”

Angela Merkel, Acting Chancellor

That much is clear. But if there’s any doubt the 63-year-old politician might throw in the towel ahead of a fourth term, she defiantly brushed aside any possibility in an interview on Sunday with the public broadcaster ZDF. “I promised four years, and I’m someone who keeps promises,” she said, despite four months of grueling coalition talks and continued uncertainty about forming a new government. By the way, she wants to remain party chair, too.

Last week, Ms. Merkel secured a deal with the center-right SPD to renew their alliance, which has ruled Germany since 2013. But she succeeded only after making huge concessions on Europe and fiscal policy, and especially on ceding the finance ministry, which is considered second only to the chancellorship in importance. “I understand the disappointment,” Ms. Merkel said. “I, myself, felt it was very painful.” The decision, the chancellor stressed, was essential to reach a deal with the SPD and get a government back to work in Berlin.

Others in her party beg to differ. They accuse her of putting her personal future ahead of good policy and risking the party’s future as a dominant force. Referring to the decision to relinquish the finance ministry portfolio, Friedrich Merz, a former chairman of the CDU-CSU parliamentary group, said: “If the CDU accepts this humiliation, it has abandoned itself.” Even more draconian in his assessment was Carsten Linnemann, a parliamentarian from the CDU’s pro-business wing: “This could be the beginning of the end of the mainstream CDU party.”

28. Parteitag der CDU
Who's going to have the last laugh? Jens Spahn or the chancellor? Source: DPA/picture alliance

Ms. Merkel has also faced criticism for handing top cabinet posts to veterans and lacking representation from the east. In the interview, she denied she was feeling the heat, but conceded she would “naturally” include younger politicians in her next cabinet. “Now it’s about giving an opportunity to people whose political future is still ahead of them or who are right in the middle of it,” the chancellor said. “We’ll do everything possible to give these people a chance.”

Whether that means giving some of her younger, more critical colleagues a crack at the top remains to be seen. Jens Spahn, a deputy minister in the finance ministry, is touted as a possible successor to Ms. Merkel as party chairman and potential chancellor candidate. But his name, so far, hasn’t surfaced on the list for ministry posts. In a weekend interview with an Austrian newspaper, Mr. Spahn said young CDU leaders need to step up and compete. And in a shot at the chancellor, he said: “We’re not a monarchy where one organizes one’s own successor.”

Supporters would like to see Mr. Spahn, who has publicly criticized the party’s refugee stance, take over as its “general secretary.” It’s a role where he serves both as party administrator and spokesperson (below Ms. Merkel). Supporters feel he could use the role to help push the party further to the right and away from the centrist position taken by Ms. Merkel, who was weakened in the September election in which her conservative block bled support to the far-right AfD. Critical of an SPD-stamped agenda, they worry the new government would stray from the strict fiscal discipline of former finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, spending a record budget surplus on expansive European and social programs.

Other names being discussed to take over leadership roles in the party, or even become potential chancellor candidates, include Daniel Günther, the premier of Schleswig-Holstein, and his colleague Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in the state of Saarland.

Cabinet positions are among the many issues to be discussed at a CDU party convention on February 26. Ms. Merkel can expect confrontation. Paul Ziemiak, head of the party’s youth organization, said he expects to hear from the party leadership a “commitment to renewal” and a lively debate on “fresh faces” for the government. That was echoed by Christian Haase, a CDU member representing community issues, who said the party needs to “begin an internal party process of renewal, parallel to governing.”

The CDU convention comes just a few days before the SPD’s 464,000 members vote on the coalition agreement reached last week.  The SPD is expected to announce the results on March 4. Lucky for Ms. Merkel, her party’s members don’t have a vote.

John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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