Opinion: As CDU spats, Merkel retains her nerves of steel

Germany's chancellor is reaching out to critics in her party — kind of. Angela Merkel intends to remain the top Christian Democrat, and chances are good that she will succeed, DW's Jens Thurau writes.
Jens Thurau
Jens Thurau

On Sunday, after a week without precedence in German politics, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a stunning appearance on the public broadcaster ZDF. Merkel had just reached a coalition agreement with the Social Democrats (SPD) in which her Christian Democrats (CDU) had forfeited all of their key cabinet positions — all except the Chancellery, of course.

The Foreign and Finance ministries will be led by SPD politicians, even though the CDU was the clear winner of the elections in September. This was a spectacular achievement for the SPD, but it did not prevent the party from publicly falling apart. CDU members are not satisfied either. Merkel's negotiating skills were criticized with an intensity seldom seen in a party that has shown nearly unquestioning loyalty to its chancellor.

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DW's Jens Thurau

Merkel acknowledged that on Sunday. She said the painful ("also for me") concessions were necessary to reach an agreement with the SPD. "We spent 12 hours talking about the allocation of the ministries," she said. Then, she dismissed the debates in her party — as well as the speculation about who might succeed her, saying she would remain chancellor for the next four years and did not intend to step down as the party's leader either.

C'est la vie

Merkel knows that young, further-right CDU allies such as Jens Spahn and Julia Klöckner are loudly calling for fresh ideas and for the party to take a more clearly conservative stance following several years during which the chancellor pursued policies that some members complained could have been drafted by the SPD. The chancellor is now declaring her willingness to include such young and vocal members in her government. The fact that Klöckner, a deputy national leader of the CDU, has a good chance of becoming agriculture minister had been brought up in the past. This concession was met with loud cheers from the Junge Union (Young Union), the CDU's youth organization. That's how quickly Merkel can get people on her side. In other words: She still wields a great deal of power.

And the SPD, which has been hit hard by catastrophic elections and infighting, is so thoroughly internally divided that it needed strong incentives to push through the coalition at all. So Merkel gave till it hurt — even beyond that. "C'est la vie," says her stoic facial expression. The woman has nerves of steel.

Angela Merkel has shown this hundreds of times. Of course, there is a risk that the chancellor's composure and cold realism are exaggerated. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Merkel method works again. It was also painful for the SPD to approve the grand coalition. Now, everyone has calmed down. She has directly addressed her critics more than she had in the past and perhaps, in return, will remain the CDU's leader and Germany's chancellor for four more years. Let's face it. It's not thrilling, but it's better than calling new elections.


Shifting responsibilities

There are five "classic ministries" in Germany's government – Finance, Foreign, Interior, Justice and Defense. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) are ceding direct control of two of them. One, finance, is to change from right to left of the political divide, moving from CDU to Social Democrat (SPD) hands. Other switches are likely in less prominent portfolios.


Major prize changes hands

The transfer of the Finance Ministry from CDU hands to the SPD is the biggest surprise of the deal. The minister plays a major role at the European level as evidenced by the CDU’s Wolfgang Schäuble during the eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz, a centrist within the SPD, will likely get the title of deputy chancellor in addition to finance minister.


Bavaria to take home ministry

The Interior Ministry, which deals with law and order within Germany, looks set to stay in the hands of Merkel’s conservatives, but not her own CDU. Touted for the position is the leader of Bavarian sister party the CSU, Horst Seehofer (left). The Bavarian party has taken a tougher line than Merkel on immigration. The conservatives suffered losses to the far-right AfD in September's election.


Who will be Germany's top diplomat?

Under the deal, the SPD will keep control of the Foreign Ministry. Since 1966, the ministry has been run by a member of smaller coalition partners. Sigmar Gabriel has been in the role in a caretaker capacity since Frank-Walter Steinmeier was elected president. Martin Schulz (above), a former leader of the European Parliament, was expected to take over but pulled out in a bid to quell party unrest.


Growing profile of defense

The CDU’s Ursula von der Leyen, a key ally of Merkel who is thought to have her own ambitions to become chancellor, is likely to remain in her role at the helm of the Defense Ministry. The ministry has had a growing importance in recent decades as Germany became more involved in foreign military operations. In particular, the Bundeswehr maintains a significant deployment of troops in Afghanistan.


Justice unlikely to change hands

Typically a portfolio that goes to the junior coalition partner, responsibility for the Justice Ministry may well stay with the current incumbent — the SPD’s Heiko Maas. While individual states in Germany are generally responsible for the administration of justice, the federal ministry is charged with making and changing constitution-related laws. It also analyzes laws made by other ministries.


Economic compensation

Helping to make up for the CDU losing two major offices, the CDU will get its hands on the Economy Ministry, also responsible for energy policy. Merkel's right hand in the chancellery Peter Altmaier (pictured) — who has also been running the Finance Ministry since the departure of Wolfgang Schäuble — is expected to take over from the SPD's Brigitte Zypries.


New girl on the block

The favorite to take over at the top of the Ministry of Agriculture is the CDU’s Julia Klöckner, who leads the party in the western state of Rhineland Palatinate. Having twice failed in her bid to become state premier there, she'll be one of the relatively rare new faces in Berlin.


Change of track

The CSU will also retain the Transport Ministry with CSU Secretary-General Andreas Scheuer, from Lower Bavaria, taking charge. He’d also be responsible for digital infrastructure. The party will hold onto the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, with undersecretary in the Transport Ministry Dorothee Bär set to take the reins from current Development Minister Gerd Müller.


Health in same party hands

The Health Ministry remains a CDU concern, with Annette Widmann-Mauz, an undersecretary in the ministry from Baden Württemberg, expected to take over. She’d replace fellow CDU member Hermann Gröhe, who is touted to head up the Federal Ministry for Education and Research.

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