Angela Merkel has reacted to her party's debacle in North Rhine-Westphalia and fired top candidate Norbert Röttgen as environment minister. This says a lot about the current state of the CDU, Volker Wagener writes.
She literally made him look like a fool - which is ironic, considering he used to be known as Angela Merkel's smartest minister. It happened a mere three days after the worst election result the Christian Democrats (CDU) had ever had in a regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state. NRW has the highest significance for the national party. Angela Merkel went for the maximum penalty for failure and fired party colleague Norbert Röttgen, her environment minister, on Wednesday (May 16). She fired him - that's the only way of putting it.
Maximum penalty for Röttgen
The chancellor took drastic measures against the man responsible for the debacle. Röttgen had never signaled to the state CDU that he would be willing to come to the NRW parliament in Düsseldorf as opposition leader if the CDU were to lose the elections - a fateful mistake. Merkel would possibly have forgiven him. But when Röttgen publicly announced that the election in the state of 18 million was a referendum on the chancellor's path in the European debt crisis, that was too much audacity for the chancellor to take. In Germany, ministers' dismissals are generally consensual. Not this time. Röttgen was simply kicked off Merkel's team. And not just because of the disastrous election result.
The environment minister's unfulfilled tasks
Merkel was also punishing Röttgen for failing in his job as environment minister. The environment ministry was founded in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and became a key ministry within the German cabinet after Fukushima happened. Merkel's transformation from a physicist in favor of nuclear energy to a politician phasing it out virtually upgraded Norbert Röttgen overnight. He was given the task of organizing the switch towards alternative energy sources. The eight oldest nuclear reactors were taken off the grid instantly and without incident, at a time when the German public was constantly bombarded with new images and reports from Japan. But other tasks in the realm of energy politics remained unfulfilled.
The debate about final storage facilities for nuclear waste still continues today; there is still no solution for the cost of new electricity grids and no answer when it comes to the question of how to promote solar energy without having to pay high subsidies - all this combined makes for negative headlines the chancellor would rather not read. After all, her motive for making the move was to deliver proof to the world that big industrialized countries can handle phasing out nuclear power and making the transformation to alternative energy sources. Röttgen had to go, in part because these and other energy projects had come to a standstill.
Merkel has 'no natural enemies' in the CDU
With Norbert Röttgen, Angela Merkel has eliminated the only remaining competitor within her party. He hadn't yet become a true challenger, but he was an ambitious politician who had the potential to stick around beyond the Merkel era. He was Merkel's only true rival. Now she is as unchallenged in her party as Helmut Kohl used to be.
There is no comparison with the CDU after Helmut Kohl's departure. Back then, there were a number of ‘natural' potential successors in the conservatives' ranks: Wolfgang Schäuble, Roland Koch, Christian Wulff, Edmund Stoiber and Jürgen Rüttgers. But nobody made it. Either Merkel has got rid of them, or they have been 'kicked upstairs' by being given important positions elsewhere. This leaves the CDU without any top politicians. This vertical power structure works for the party as long as Merkel keeps winning elections with her natural authority. But it will become a problem as soon as Merkel's star starts waning.
Author: Volker Wagener / gb
Editor: Simon Bone