Berlin Mutiny Shows Merkel Star Waning Even Among Her Party

(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel’s first foray into politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall was as spokeswoman for an East German party called Democratic Awakening.

The last act of her political career may also be marked by a drive for a new beginning -- this time from within her own parliamentary bloc.

The defeat of Merkel’s candidate for caucus leader, Volker Kauder, a loyal lieutenant who marshaled her forces in the Bundestag throughout her time as chancellor, was a surprise blow to her authority. That it was landed by her own lawmakers showed the depth of longing for change after almost 13 years of crisis management that has seen her domestic support wane even as her international reputation grew.

The opposition hailed Kauder’s replacement in Tuesday’s vote by Ralph Brinkhaus, a fiscal hawk, as evidence that Merkel’s time was over. While her own caucus sought to play down the significance for the chancellor, the chance that she’ll become marginalized at the head of an even more unstable coalition has surely risen.

“Can Merkel Still Lead?” asked Wednesday’s headline in Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling daily. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called the chancellor a “Lame Duck” in an opinion piece, while business newspaper Handelsblatt proclaimed a “Revolt Against Merkel.”

“I shy away from saying this is the beginning of the end, but this is the biggest blow so far to her leadership that we’ve seen outside of elections,” Jan Techau, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said in an interview. “This weakens her across the board.”

Nobody close to the center of power was calling for her resignation and Merkel has demonstrated repeatedly she can bounce back from crises that appeared to signal her undoing.

“I’ve got no time for any talk of ‘earthquakes’ and ‘votes of no confidence’ and how terrible it all is,” Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer, a member of Merkel’s Bavarian CSU allies, said on ZDF television on Wednesday. “We have a meeting of the coalition already on Monday and so the caucus needs to work well together so that we can achieve something for our citizens.”

Still, the unexpected defeat adds to an extended period of political turmoil in a nation that’s more used to being a byword for stability. The year that’s passed since an inconclusive election has seen months of fraught negotiations to form a coalition government, then a revolt by her Bavarian allies in June followed by weeks of infighting over the fate of Germany’s domestic intelligence chief. All reflect an increasing polarization of politics epitomized by the fallout of migration that has haunted Merkel since she refused to shut Germany’s borders in 2015.

No Sugarcoating

“This is a democratic moment, in which there are also defeats,” Merkel told reporters after Brinkhaus’s victory. “There’s nothing to sugarcoat.”

The loss of her loyalist Kauder disrupts Merkel’s ability to control legislation, which has been central to pushing through divisive measures such as bailouts and financial backstops for the euro area.

Cooperation with the Social Democrats, who have consistently backed French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for the euro area against skeptics in Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc, is also likely to become more difficult with a more independent-minded caucus. Christian Lindner, head of the opposition Free Democrats, said Merkel should call a confidence vote.

Central Wheel

“Merkel has lost a central wheel in her machinery of power,” Ulrich Sarcinelli, a political scientist at the University of Koblenz-Landau.

Brinkhaus, a budget and finance expert who had never previously made a name as a public Merkel critic, led calls in April to put the brakes on euro-area reforms. He rallied lawmakers to force Merkel’s hand, insisting that the Bundestag have full say over lending by a future European Monetary Fund.

His election “reflects a desire for a more distinguishable center-right profile and a greater role for MPs after years of direct and ultra-pragmatic rule over the CDU from the chancellery,” said Carsten Nickel, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London.

Merkel’s fourth-term government with the Social Democrats took office in March, six months after the federal election spurred months of political haggling. A year after the ballot, some polls suggest the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, has overtaken the Social Democrats to become the country’s No. 2 political force.

The AfD, which won seats in the national parliament for the first time last year on an anti-Merkel platform, was jubilant.

“You can imagine the corks are popping here,” Alice Weidel, the party’s caucus co-leader, told reporters. “The ‘Merkeldaemmerung’ has begun -- the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel. We hope now that she exits more quickly.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.