The defeat of Angela Merkel's long-time ally Volker Kauder as leader of her parliamentary party group has been widely read as a disaster for the German chancellor, despite protestations by Kauder's deposer, Ralph Brinkhaus, that he does not oppose Merkel's politics. Indeed, as even hostile media commentators had to admit, the tax consultant with a reputation for cool, level-headed budgetary analysis has never previously been considered a party rebel.
Nevertheless, as Merkel herself said, there is no way to "sugarcoat" Tuesday's vote — it looked really bad. Kauder had been in the post for 13 years, and not only Merkel, but other leaders in her conservative alliance of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), had lobbied for him among the 246 conservative Bundestag members.
But what will this actually mean for the chancellor? In immediate terms, it will put even more scrutiny on other upcoming votes: the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse in October, and, perhaps most significantly for her personally, the CDU party conference at the beginning of December, when Merkel expects to be re-elected as party chairwoman among around 1,000 delegates. More poor results in those votes would mean further dents in her authority, and questions over possible successors will become louder.
Also, as political scientist Frank Decker told Der Spiegel on Wednesday, she still has control over her own transition — so it might be in her interests to find a way out before the end of the legislative period.
No confidence vote for now
Opposition parties, of course, want to test Merkel earlier. Free Democratic Party (FDP) leader Christian Lindner was among the first to demand that the chancellor hold a confidence vote in the parliament immediately. In last fall's post-election coalition negotiations, the FDP had scuppered a new coalition with the CDU chiefly because Merkel would not be removed.
"A very clear no," was the response from Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert at Wednesday's regular press conference, as the chancellor prepared for her first meeting with Brinkhaus in his new position.
Indeed, reports of Merkel's imminent downfall still appear far-fetched, despite everything. On Wednesday, leading CDU figures were lining up to back Merkel, who has, after all, won four national elections in a row. Neither her party, or the junior coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), itself plumbing uncharted depths in the opinion polls, have any appetite for new elections.
"I'm certain that if she had held a confidence vote yesterday it would have been a fat victory," said Volker Bouffier, CDU state premier of Hesse. Obviously, he added, she wasn't overjoyed that the parliamentary group hadn't followed her advice, "but that is no withdrawal of confidence." Men who had become known as internal party rivals, like CSU leader and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, also publicly backed the boss.
Listening to the party
But in the short-term, it seems clear that Merkel will not simply be able to impose her wishes on the parliamentary group in the manner she's used to. At the very least, Brinkhaus' election means she will have to do more to include the Bundestag members in her decisions — one of Kauder's main assets was his ability to head off internal dissent without her direct intervention.
"Brinkhaus showed courage to stand up against Merkel's will, which is something the parliamentary group was in need of," CDU MP Matern von Marschall told DW.
He also pointed out that the vast majority of CDU/CSU MPs, some 231 of 246 parliamentarians, are direct mandates – in other words, they represent specific constituencies. In the Brinkhaus era, this connection with the grassroots will now become more important, he predicts: "For Merkel, it will become a little more difficult to get her way, the parliamentary group will be more self-confident, and they will listen to the constituencies."
But again, the natural conservatism of German politicians in general, and CDU/CSU MPs in particular, will be hard to overcome. Political analyst Gero Neugebauer told public broadcaster NDR that the German system is structured to support the government: "In our parliamentary system the government party groups support the government, and the opposition parties provide control. One might regret that. It's different in other parliaments, but here the entire parliament doesn't stand in opposition to the government."
Nevertheless, recent political events – from the summer crisis precipitated by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer's migration "master plan" to the sacking, promotion, and finally transfer of domestic intelligence chief Hans-Georg Maassen – have made clear that Merkel's personal power base is diminishing.
Still, many of Merkel's immediate problems could be resolved by mid-October, when Bavaria votes — if the 69-year-old CSU leader Seehofer quits following another poor result for Merkel's Bavarian sister party, he will likely also disappear from the federal government — removing one of the main sources of friction in her fourth government.