Political Comeback

Return from Exile

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Günther Oettinger, a leading German conservative whose political faux pas six years ago seemingly halted his career, is making a comeback and could be critical to Angela Merkel's reelection hopes next year.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party is suffering historic defeats in various state elections, and direly needs help ahead of next year’s federal election.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Günther Oettinger took office as the European Commissioner for Energy in February 2010, stepping down as Minister President of Baden-Württemberg after a controversial speech.
    • This month, Ms. Merkel’s approval ratings sank to 46 percent, its lowest level in five years.
    • Mr. Oettinger, a hard-working politician who remains influential in his region six years after leaving, could be a strong asset for the CDU.
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When Günther Oettinger left Germany in 2010, few political observers in Berlin expected to hear from him again. The minister president of Baden-Württemberg, the state that is home to Stuttgart, Porsche and Daimler, had been a rising star in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.

But his ascent seemed to come to a grinding halt in 2007 after he gave a controversial eulogy for one of his predecessors, Hans Karl Filbinger, the state’s minister president from 1966 to 1978. In his speech, Mr. Oettinger said Mr. Filbinger, a marine court judge in Nazi Germany from 1943 to 1945, was “not a Nazi.” Mr. Filbinger had stepped down as minister president in 1978 after it came to light that he had sentenced four Nazi deserters to death.

Until his death at 93, Mr. Filbinger denied being a Nazi sympathizer.

The outrage over Mr. Oettinger’s remarks came swiftly, fed by political opponents in the Social Democratic Party and elsewhere. Mr. Oettinger initially defended his comments, saying he was misunderstood, but was admonished by Ms. Merkel to explain himself.

He eventually issued a public apology to Holocaust victims, saying he had never, as his political rivals had claimed, attempted to relativize the Holocaust or assert that Mr. Filbinger was an opponent of the Nazi regime.

“He wasn’t one and I never maintained that he was,” Mr. Oettinger told Bild newspaper at the time. Mr. Filbinger was a “deeply Christian and conservative person with a demonstrable inner distance to the Nazi regime,” he told Bild. “I also believe by the way that one shouldn’t condemn a person for their entire life for mistakes that they may have made as a young person under this horrible system.”

Despite attempts to explain himself, the political damage remained, and instead of coming to Berlin for a bigger political job, Mr. Oettinger’s next stop was what some might consider self-imposed exile – Brussels, as European commissioner for energy, and Germany’s only representative on the panel that drafts and administers laws for the European Union.

At Ms. Merkel’s invitation, he took the job in February 2010.

Most assumed Mr. Oettinger had reached the zenith of his political career, and until recently, he had maintained a relatively low profile, surfacing in Germany to make news on digital rights, copyright and other issues in his E.U. portfolio.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Mr. Oettinger’s political burial. Ms. Merkel, his party colleague and one-time rival, stumbled in the European refugee crisis, letting more than 1 million migrants into Germany in a matter of months, and unleashing chaos, grumbling and political retribution.

Now, a year after the crisis began, Ms. Merkel is fighting for her political survival, and, a year before national elections that could give her a record fourth consecutive term as chancellor, she needs every CDU vote in every German state, and none more than in Baden-Württemberg, a stronghold.

Ms. Merkel finds herself needing the man she effectively sent to Brussels for his strong business connections and rapport in Baden-Württemberg, a key CDU stronghold.

Over the last year, Ms. Merkel’s CDU has suffered historic, humiliating defeats, most recently in the states Mecklenburg-Lower Pomerania and Berlin at the hands of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany or AfD, a party feeding on fear, anger and opposition to Ms. Merkel’s open-door refugee policies.

In elections last March in Baden-Württemberg, the AfD took a greater-than-expected 15 percent of the vote, and claimed 23 of 143 seats in the state parliament.

Her relations with neighboring Bavaria in southern Germany strained by the refugee influx, Ms. Merkel is more than ever in need of Mr. Oettinger, the man she sent to Brussels, who has quietly nurtured his local connections back home in an area she must perform well in to win next fall.

Mr. Oettinger is still a familiar, respected presence in Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s third-most populous state in Germany’s southwest corner, the hilly home to the world-renowned Black Forest. He is often seen driving his own Audi — which is made in neighboring Bavaria — on Baden-Württemberg’s winding roads to and from appearances as European commissioner.

A dedicated public servant, Mr. Oettinger claims to only sleep in Brussels for nine nights out of each month.

“Günther Oettinger is a strong advocate of the economy of his home region,” said Wolfgang Grupp, a 74-year-old who runs a textile factory one hour from Stuttgart. “He supports the entrepreneurs from Baden-Württemberg.”

Mr. Oettinger has the reputation for being a workaholic. He was initially ridiculed by Germans for his heavily accented English at the start of his Brussels career, but has improved it and is credited with negotiating effectively with European energy companies, in English, and in playing a key role in ending the natural gas fight between Russia and Ukraine.

Now, eight years after leaving the state for Belgium, Mr. Oettinger could again regain relevance in Germany by being an asset to the CDU and Ms. Merkel. Her approval ratings sank this month to 46 percent, their lowest in five years.

A little more than a year ago, three in four Germans said they were satisfied with the former East German protege of ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who took office in 2005 by upsetting incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder.

But after a summer of terror, some inflicted by young men who entered Germany posing as refugees, those days are in the past for Ms. Merkel.

One year away from Germany’s next national election, it is not clear whether Mr. Oettinger can help the CDU regain its footing. He is reportedly not personally close to Ms. Merkel, but has a good working relationship with her. Ms. Merkel’s own finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has described his relationship with the German chancellor in similar terms.

“Oettinger and Merkel are clearly political allies when it comes to modernizing the CDU,” said Oscar W. Gabriel, a political science professor at the University of Stuttgart. “But their respective personalities are very different.”

Hans-Georg Wehling, a political science professor at the University of Tübingen, Oettinger’s alma mater, summed up the situation bluntly.

“Oettinger is popular here because he’s a social, likable person and has many friends,” he said.

In 2014, Mr. Oettinger became European Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, and is now in charge of hot-button issues such as broadband internet rollout, copyright law, data protection and telecommunications regulation.

He has told journalists he still uses an old Nokia phone, but has promised Europeans he will protect their data from the NSA, Google and Apple, and make European companies more competitive through digital technology.

While those issues are sure to remain his focus, he is now being called on to get out the CDU vote in Baden-Württemberg, a state where he often skirted controversy, especially when Stuttgart-based Porsche made an abortive attempt to buy much-bigger rival, Volkswagen.

Volkswagen eventually bought Porsche instead, and Mr. Oettinger was accused by some at the time of not sufficiently supporting Porsche, Mr. Wehling, the professor at Mr. Oettinger’s alma mater in Tübingen.

“I don’t think he has any real political future here any more,” Mr. Wehling said.

But it may not be his past, but his actions in the immediate future that determines whether Mr. Oettinger’s political influence is wielded from Brussels, or is rehabilitated at home, a beneficiary of perserverence, timing and a bit of luck.

This article orignally appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: redaktion@wiwo.de

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