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Germany: Merkel, the Fading Star

Volker Kauder was one of hers. A reliable supporter, one who would synchronize everything with Chancellor Angela Merkel. A good man, from her perspective. And one who does not have a stronger personality than she does, meaning he never seemed superior while standing next to her.

Next to him, even Merkel seemed like a master rhetorician. The fact that Volker Kauder usually needs 15 minutes to finish a single sentence may have annoyed other MPs and parts of the public. But nobody would ever have accused him of not being smart or reliable. Being boring and not knowing how to get the message across is not a crime.

It was a surprise when Ralph Brinkhaus, a thrusting politician from Eastern Westphalia, who is only 50 years old, ran for Kauder’s post as Merkel’s conservative CDU’s parliamentary group chairman. He was voted into the Bundestag in 2009. Only five years later, he was already deputy chairman for budget and financial questions.

Volker Kauder, on the other hand, just turned 69 years old. He has been an MP since 1990 and assumed the position of the chairman in 2005, thirteen years ago. Over time, a lot of trust developed between him and Merkel. They cooperated well.

Some German-language media, including the ‘Spiegel’ magazine, have predicted the end of Merkel’s era at the Chancellery countless times, even years ago. Today, more conservative publications jumped on the bandwagon. This had been Merkel’s defeat, many of them wrote into hectically uploaded articles. Was this the end of her reign?

Angela Merkel herself called today’s vote a defeat. “This is the hour of democracy. It includes defeats.” She said there was no sugarcoating. “But I do want the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag to continue its work successfully. Therefore, I will support Ralph Brinkhaus wherever I can.”

Just hours before, she had supported Kauder, by asking the parliamentary group to vote for him. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer from her Bavarian sister party CSU had tried the same. CDU and CSU share one parliamentary group.

Some of Merkel’s fellow party members reacted this evening, by saying the vote had reflected the discontent which had developed during the past weeks. And they are probably right.

Within the SPD, Merkel’s junior partner in her government coalition, some people chose a stronger wording. Ralf Steger, the SPD’s chairman in the northern province of Schleswig-Holstein, said the fact that Merkel had actively supported Kauder, that she had clearly said she wanted to continue working with him, and that she had lost in spite of it all showed how strong the “erosion of power” already was.

The chairman of the Green party’s parliamentary group, Anton Hofreiter, said the vote was a sign of a deep rift within the CDU, while the liberal FDP’s Christian Lindner stated Merkel’s party obviously wanted a “renewal”. And the Left’s Sahra Wagenknecht said the vote had been against Merkel.

Since the last parliamentary elections one year and one day ago, Chancellor Merkel has been confronted with countless problems. First, it took her months to form a new government coalition, since her partner of choice, the FDP, pulled out of the coalition talks without any obvious reason.

Then it took ages to get the SPD to do it again. Once that was done, her junior partner had personnel problems to solve. Just months later, Minister Seehofer and the other Bavarians almost crushed the coalition by staging a big argument about refugees.

Their motive: They wanted to look more determined to stop the flow of refugees into Germany than the populist AfD, shortly before the federal state elections in Bavaria, which are coming up in October. That strategy backfired. Instead of gaining, the CSU lost in the polls.

As if all of the above had not been more than enough already, the Maassen scandal hurt Angela Merkel too, especially when she started dipsy-doodling, by taking decisions and retracting them only hours later.

Angela Merkel has been Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany since 2005. She is three years away of beating the late Helmut Kohl’s 16 years at the Chancellery. But, contrary to Kohl’s approach, Merkel moved the CDU to the left, into the center. Some called her the “better social democrat”. Her biggest success might have been steering Germany, Europe’s strongest economy, through two financial crises quite well.

After today’s defeat, quite a few observers expect the end of the Merkel era to come soon. In some cases it is wishful thinking, in others just the outcome of analysis. Is Merkel’s star fading? Virtually all observers agree.