German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her then-parliamentary group leader Volker Kauder at the opening ceremony of the new Daimler Testing and Technology Center in Immendingen, Germany, September 19, 2018. (Photo: CGTN / Reuters )
A vote in Germany's lower house of parliament stunned Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, ending the 13-year reign of her confidant Volker Kauder as head of the parliamentary party.
Center-right lawmakers instead chose Ralph Brinkhaus, essentially an unknown in Berlin, as the leader of the conservative parliamentary group.
The move, according to German media, has weakened Merkel and is being seen as an unexpected blow to her authority, which reflects rising discontent with her leadership.
Opposition leaders described the upset as "the beginning of the end of the Merkel era" and a "political thunderbolt," which was widely taken as a sign that lawmakers want more say in shaping the policies of her fourth and final government.
The victory of Brinkhaus, a deputy leader of the conservative group in the Bundestag (lower house), marks a turning point since Kauder had accompanied Merkel, serving in effect as her parliamentary right hand, throughout her 13 years in office.
"This is the beginning of the end of the [Grand Coalition]. The chancellor's authority within her own parliamentary group has been officially destroyed," Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of the business-friendly Free Democrats, tweeted.
"You could call it Merkel-Daemmerung (Twilight)," said Alexander Gauland, leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered the Bundestag for the first time after last year's election and now ranks second in polls. "It's a further step towards the end of the Merkel government, which I believe will end far sooner than we can imagine today."
"A staffing shake-up has revealed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel can no longer organize majorities in her own ranks. The chaos is threatening an early end to her government," Germany's International broadcaster Deutsche Welle News (DW) wrote in an opinion piece.
According to Germany's Handelsblatt Global, Brinkhaus avoided directly attacking Merkel but said some voters have been marginalized and pushed to the AfD in the last three years, adding it was time for renewal.
Many in Merkel's party have criticized her handling of the refugee crisis and decision to welcome in over one million migrants, which many say gave rise to the populists.
Merkel, whose stewardship of Europe's largest economy shaped the 2008 eurozone crisis, the 2015 refugee crisis and the continent's reaction to the United States' unilateral turn under President Donald Trump, congratulated Brinkhaus in a terse statement.
"I hoped Kauder could remain group leader because I worked well with him. However, Brinkhaus got the most votes. I congratulated him and offered him good cooperation," she told reporters.
Though Brinkhaus, 50, scored a relatively narrow 125-112 victory over Kauder, 69, in the conservative group comprising Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), the upset was a clear sign of lawmakers' growing disenchantment with Merkel's governing style.
While Merkel has said this will be her last term, newspapers were unanimous in seeing the upset as marking the end of the era. "Lame duck" was the headline over the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine's front-page leader.
And while many conservatives insisted the move should not be seen as being directed against Merkel, Armin Schuster, a conservative lawmaker, was less circumspect, saying she should start planning for a handover.
"I expect the chancellor to tell us she envisages a transition" to a fresh conservative chancellor candidate at the 2020 elections, he told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten daily.
'Much work to do'
An instinctive centrist, Merkel has often seemed most comfortable working with parties well to her left, including the Social Democrats (SPD), with whom she currently governs, or the Greens.
That has often run against the instincts of her own Bundestag deputies, and it was Kauder's job, as a link between party leadership and increasingly restive lawmakers, to soothe and cajole them into backing the chancellor.
"I am very pleased by the result of the vote, we have a lot of work to do," said Brinkhaus, adding he had great respect for Kauder's achievements.
Kauder's toppling comes after a turbulent few weeks during which coalition partners rowed over the fate of the head of Germany's security service, who had questioned reports of far-right attacks on migrants.
Brinkhaus announced his candidacy a few weeks ago, surprising many commentators who viewed the move as something of a challenge to one of Merkel's closest allies, but he was widely expected to lose.
"It's a political thunderbolt for Berlin," said Christian Lindner, leader of the pro-business Free Democrats, who interpreted the vote as a sign that lawmakers were no longer content with Merkel policies that were "interchangeable with those of the Greens."
"We greet this emancipation," he added.