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Dark days

July 19, 2010

With the resignation of Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust, the Christian Democratic Union party has lost its sixth state premier in a year. It is hard to escape the impression that Angela Merkel's allies are abandoning her.

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel is shedding allies at an alarming rateImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In a very short press briefing on Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to take the blow of Ole von Beust's resignation with good nature, but she took no questions from reporters as she bade farewell to the outgoing premier of the city-state of Hamburg.

"Hamburg has a lot to thank him for, but the federal CDU has a lot to thank him for as well," Merkel said. "I think I can say that we worked well together, that we could always rely on each other and for that I'd like to thank Ole very much."

Ole von Beust
Ole von Beust's resignation had been expectedImage: AP

But even voices in Merkel's own party, like Wolfgang Bosbach of the CDU's parliamentary faction, could not help but lament the image the party is currently projecting. "When six state premiers resign in the space of a year, then it does give the impression of an erosion, even if the motives for the resignations are very different," he said.

Dead reform, dead government?

Von Beust claims his resignation was motivated only by personal reasons, but it came on the same day as his Hamburg government - a rare coalition between Christian Democrats and Greens - was defeated in a high-profile school reform referendum.

The proposed reform, backed by trade unions and education experts, would have seen the remit of the city's primary schools extended from fourth grade to sixth grade, pushing back the moment when children are sorted into Germany's three-tiered school system. The reform's exponents believe it would have given more children a chance to enter higher education, but it was defeated by a strong conservative parents' campaign.

Von Beust expressed disappointment at the result, but insisted that his recommended successor, Christoph Ahlhaus, would continue to lead the CDU and Green party coalition.

But that is easier said than done, as Ahlhaus is considered a hard-line conservative less likely to find favor among the liberal Greens. Hamburg opposition parties did not waste any time in calling for new elections, and on a national level, the opposition clearly smells the blood of Merkel's troubled government. Andrea Nahles, general secretary of the center-left Social Democratic Party, claimed, "The CDU appears to be dissolving. There is obviously immense frustration in Merkel's CDU."

Hannelore Kraft, right, votes for a minority government in North Rhine-Westphalia
The opposition parties are hoping to capitalize on Merkel's situationImage: AP

Worse for Merkel than the CDU

In truth, the political fallout from von Beust's resignation is difficult to measure as yet. Only one of the recent resignations of CDU state premiers was forced by an electoral defeat - that of Juergen Ruettgers in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Ruettgers has been replaced by SPD candidate Hannelore Kraft.

But the current game of musical chairs may be more damaging to Merkel herself than it is to her party, as many of those replaced - including the new German president Christian Wulff, formerly state premier of Lower Saxony - were seen as her personal allies.

Political analyst Gerd Langguth says the next few months will be crucial for the chancellor. "She hardly has any real deputies left, and that's why we'll all be eagerly watching the CDU party conference in November, when three federal deputy chairmen for Merkel will have to be replaced," he said.

Merkel now has until November to shore up her government, her party and her own circle of allies.

Author: Ben Knight

Editor: Susan Houlton