Federal Elections

Mr. Fix-It to the Rescue

Kabinettssitzung
Okay, Peter, this is a tough one - kill the Schulz hype fast and get me reelected for a fourth term. Source: Michael Kappeler/DPA

The chancellor has a political weapon her rivals would die for: chief of staff Peter Altmaier.

Now she’s decided to pull out her top gun to silence the buzz being generated by her Social Democratic challenger, Martin Schulz.

Mr. Altmaier, her 58-year-old chancellery boss and confidant, is taking over responsibility for planning her campaign for the September federal election. He replaces the Christian Democratic Union’s general secretary Peter Tauber, who was criticized for failing to come up with a convincing strategy to counter the Schulz hype and win back urban voters, among other reasons.

The long rumored move was confirmed Monday in a tweet by Mr. Tauber after a meeting at the party’s headquarters in Berlin. In addition to Mr. Altmaier, the chancellor has brought back Joachim Koschnicke who headed the CDU’s strategic planning and communications before leaving to work in industry.

The unexpected ascent of Mr. Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, has caught Ms. Merkel’s CDU by surprise. At times, he has tied and even surpassed the chancellor in national polls. There’s still plenty of time for maneuvering in the topsy-turvy election year. But with her chief of staff on board for strategy, the chancellor clearly intends to avoid any surprises.

There’s still plenty of time for maneuvering in the topsy-turvy election year.

The two have a long history of tight collaboration. Ms. Merkel, the unflappable, benign “Mutti” of the nation, has turned frequently to Mr. Altmaier, her staight-talking go-to man to get tough jobs done.

During the heat of the refugee crisis in Germany in 2015, when the chancellor was under fire for her open-door policy, she made him the head coordinator of the government’s immigration strategy. He mastered the task, seeing through a number of laws and reforms to get a grip on the nearly 1 million asylum-seekers who entered the country that year.

His appointment was a huge vote of confidence in him but it amounted to a painful demotion for Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziére, who had been under growing criticism, particularly over the sluggish processing of asylum requests.

Mr. Altmaier began gaining experience and collecting contacts as a deputy minister in the interior ministry in 2005. He later became head of the CDU-CSU faction in the Bundestag, the German parliament. Since then, he has proven himself in his function as chief of staff to be an effective interface between the executive and legislative branches as well as ruling coalitions and the opposition. Another skill: he can deal with the Greens, a possible coalition partner.

Mr. Altmaier is known for his sarcasm and occasional bouts of black humor. In 2012, when Ms. Merkel made him environment minister and saddled him with getting her green energy revolution back on track, Handelsblatt asked him whether that meant he would make it into the history books. Mr. Altmaier, from the state of Saarland on Germany’s border with France, replied: “There are only three men from the Saarland who have made history. The first was Marshal Michel Ney who ruined the French army at Waterloo. The second was Erich Honecker who ruined the GDR. The third is Oskar Lafontaine (a prominent German leftist).”

Mr. Altmaier will have a desk in the CDU’s main office in the Konrad-Adenauer-Haus. But his latest assignment has already drawn fire from a couple rival parties.

Wolfgang Kubicki, the deputy chairman of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, referred to it as a “fusion of government and party politics that is blatantly unconstitutional.”

The Social Democratic Party leadership was similarly concerned. “Heading up an election campaign and running the chancellery must be strictly separated,” SPD Deputy Chairman Ralf Stegner told reporters.

 

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

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