There is a habit in English-speaking media of trying to force all political developments in Germany into the frame of whether this is the long promised end of Angela Merkel and the rise of the populists, or not. As with anything Merkel, “not” is the way to bet. This week’s election of Ralph Brinkhaus as the CDU and CSU’s joint parliamentary leader, though, is a significant moment.
The parliamentary group leaders – Fraktionsführer – are an important institution in German politics, in British terms combining the roles of chief whip and leader or shadow-leader of the House. As such they are crucial in managing the daily business of politics, organizing the work of the Bundestag, and representing parliament and the chancellorship to each other. It is no accident that they tend to be major personalities. On the conservative side, the office has been held by Helmut Kohl, Wolfgang Schäuble, and of course Angela Merkel. On the side of social democracy you could count Kurt Schumacher and Helmut Schmidt. Spilling one, as the Aussies say, is a big deal.
Volker Kauder, the incumbent, looked like to join that list, having held the job since 2005 as one of Merkel’s closest associates. As ARD reports here as part of a useful profile, it was a considerable surprise that anyone even ran. Not even Brinkhaus’ own regional party would support him openly. Yet he won, by 125 to 112, earning a classically Merkel-ish remark that “in democracy, sometimes you lose, and there’s no point trying to pretty that up”.
It would be traditional here to start talking about refugees, the EU, and the like. It would also be hopelessly wrong. Brinkhaus’ triumph is interesting precisely for what he is not.
He is not a candidate of the Bavarian CSU or an intimate of Horst Seehofer. In fact, Seehofer and the CSU campaigned for Kauder’s election, so it is as much a slap in the face for the CSU leadership as it is for anyone. He is not a southerner, an ex-East German, or a Saxon. Instead he represents his home town, Gütersloh, up in the north-west. He is an economist, a Bosch executive turned tax-adviser, and came to politics through the Roman Catholic youth movement after serving in the cold war Bundeswehr as an anti-tank gunner. This is as perfectly standard a CDU career as it is possible to imagine. He is not a Eurosceptic or a Russophile. His previous political office was as chair of the Bundestag budget committee, in which he had an important role in coping with the Eurozone crisis. Even his Twitter feed, when I last looked, showed him with representatives of the German Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of German Industries, saying that he understood their case for lower taxes but it was in the good times that a budget gets ruined. If you want to feel the sheer spießbürgerlichkeit for yourself, his parliamentary dance card is here and here is a Der Tagesspiegel profile.
One conclusion you could draw here is that this is a non-event. One perfectly normal Christian Democrat is replaced by another. However, the interesting bit is precisely that the challenge came from the perfectly normal, EU-and-NATO Christian Democrats of northern and western Germany, Angela Merkel’s bedrock support. Had it come from ultra-conservatism, Saxony, or Bavaria, you would expect this classical CDU to rally round Merkel, just as it did unanimously against Horst Seehofer back in June. This time, the call is coming from inside the Ludwig-Erhard Haus. This is a bigger threat and one different in kind.
A twist, interestingly, is that journalists at the count reported the CSU members seemed delighted to spill Kauder. This should remind us, again, that Kauder was the candidate of party leader Seehofer, Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder, and the head of the Bavarian caucus in parliament, Alexander Dobrindt. You cannot therefore understand this as a Bavarian rebellion against Merkel. Instead, Brinkhaus seems to have appealed as much to CSU members at odds with Seehofer, watching their poll numbers deteriorate steadily ahead of October 14th’s state election. Not so long ago they were on 50%, but the latest survey puts them down to 35%. As Seehofer is now defined by his failed effort to topple Merkel, you could make a case that Brinkhaus has won partly on the back of outrage at Seehofer’s disloyalty. This Der Tagesspiegel piece makes the interesting point that a week before the vote, Hessen’s Christian Democrats voted out their chief partly because of a clumsy effort he made to support Kauder, and replaced him with a human rights campaigner and vigorous supporter of #refugeeswelcome. The spill was possible precisely because the replacement, Michael Brand, stood for continuity rather than change.
That said, everyone in German politics is now talking succession. The Hessen issue is important, as the state elections there are coming up on the 28th October while Bavaria consumes most of the attention. This excellent blog post points out that state-level elections commonly show dramatic late swings, as most voters only turn their attention to regional politics late in the day. As a result, the conservative-green coalition there might be in trouble, and losing a showpiece statehouse might trigger all sorts of things. By then, though, the CSU might have lost power in Bavaria, an October revolution that would put anything in Hessen into the shade.