Opinion: A provocative portfolio | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 16.12.2013
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Opinion: A provocative portfolio

Back room deals, a party plebiscite, and, to top it off, a big surprise with the breaking of a taboo: Germany gets its first female defense minister. A coup with an ulterior motive, says DW's Volker Wagener.

Now, there's something! Ursula von der Leyen is Germany's next defense minister. For the first time, a woman will be the head of the German armed forces. An experiment? Certainly not! It is more an ingenious chess move by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The resolute and ambitious 55-year-old Christian Democrat has been handed a key portfolio which has hitherto been a bastion of male dominance - a post that is superbly suited to conducting a kind of auxiliary foreign policy. The one who will suffer in this case is Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the freshly named foreign minister from Merkel's junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats. Besides the chancellor, Steinmeier will have to tolerate a second rival in his territory. The real foreign policy is dictated from the chancellery in any case - so much for Merkel's tactical and strategic calculus.

Tough and persistent

Ursula von der Leyen can be sure of unfettered attention. As a woman in a male domain she will be moving - politically - through heavily mined territory. Women have been part of the German military for a long time, but they have a tough row to hoe. The annual report on the state of the armed forces illustrates this every year.

However, any anxieties that the petite, always well-coiffed von der Leyen might lose her permanent smile in the rough-and-tumble daily grind of the army barracks are wildly exaggerated. Von der Leyen is a licensed physician and grew up in a household with five brothers. She is tough and persistent - and anything but chicken-livered.

Angela Merkel landed a real coup with this personnel decision. Originally, von der Leyen, the serving labor minister, had been tapped for the health ministry - or so it was thought: a practical and logical portfolio swap for someone who is a doctor and who was believed not to have the best cards in Merkel's portfolio poker.

In her own party, von der Leyen is not widely liked due to her tendency to come up with her own ideas, and her relationship to Merkel is said to be strained. And yet the chancellor has given von der Leyen's career a kick upstairs. The question is: why? After all, the third coalition partner, the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), came away from the portfolio poker with fairly unspectacular mini-ministries. That suggests that von der Leyen must have been important for Merkel.

Promotion for a rival

The new head of the defense ministry stands for a new image of women in Merkel's CDU. She appeals to a voter demographic that the party wants to attract. Von der Leyen, who besides being a doctor and a politician is also a mother of seven, speaks fluent English and French, spent several years abroad, has worked academically in her field and still finds time to care for her father, who suffers from dementia. How she manages to do all that is a mystery to many.

Over the years, Angela Merkel has very successfully sidelined her male competition. There are none left from the long list of rivals who could have challenged her authority and who saw themselves as the crown princes. Merkel is the undisputed number one in the CDU, but now there is a - female - rival.

Many people think Ursula von der Leyen has what it takes to be chancellor. She is carved from the same tough stock as Merkel. The chancellor has never actively agitated against her inner-party adversaries. Instead, she's always let them go on until they'd run out of steam.

Von der Leyen could end up being a paradoxical example that a promotion does not always lead to the desired result. One thing is certain: Defense ministers in Germany have a conspicuously short shelf life - which doesn't mean that has to be the case this time too. Perhaps Angela Merkel, now in her third term, is just getting her house ready for the succession.

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