TWELVE weeks after its election, followed by the longest coalition negotiations in its history, Germany has a new government at last. And although there was never any doubt that Angela Merkel would continue leading it as chancellor, the cabinet she chose contained a surprise: Germany’s new defence minister will be Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman in that job. Mrs von der Leyen, who at 55 is four years younger than Mrs Merkel, is now the most obvious member of Mrs Merkel’s party, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to run for chancellor when Mrs Merkel, who is now starting her third term, steps down.
Mrs von der Leyen’s most likely opponent would be Sigmar Gabriel (left, above), leader of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). Since the SPD’s poor showing in the election (it got only 25.7% of votes, against 41.5% for Mrs Merkel’s camp), he has skilfully manoeuvred his party into another “grand coalition” with Mrs Merkel, wrangling concessions out of her in the process and winning a referendum of party members to approve the pact by the huge margin of 75% to 25%. Now he is vice-chancellor and minister with a newly combined portfolio of energy and the economy. This puts him in charge of Germany’s biggest domestic challenge, the transition from nuclear and coal to solar and wind.
As defence minister, a challenging portfolio that includes managing a continuing reform of the army, Mrs von der Leyen could build up her stature for a future run against Mr Gabriel. She will have few rivals, because the most senior cabinet posts are staying in the hands of veterans from the preceding generation. The CDU’s Wolfgang Schäuble, 71, remains as finance minister (suggesting that little change can be expected in Germany’s management of the euro crisis). The SPD’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier becomes foreign minister again, the same job he held in Mrs Merkel’s first term, from 2005 to 2009. Thomas de Maizière, whom Mrs von der Leyen replaces and who will now become interior minister, a job he has had before, is still damaged by a procurement scandal from his time as defence minister.
Petite and sprightly, Mrs von der Leyen has been close to politics her whole life, as the daughter of Ernst Albrecht, a former premier of Lower Saxony. But she personally entered politics only at 42, after living in Belgium, Britain and America, learning fluent English and French, studying and then practising gynaecology and having seven children. Since Mrs Merkel became chancellor in 2005, Mrs von der Leyen has had stints as minister of families and women, then of labour and welfare.
During these years, she has proved herself unfailingly loyal to Mrs Merkel, even after a personal disappointment in 2010, when the chancellor did not nominate her for federal president as she had hoped. She also cultivated an image as the social conscience of her party. With rare bravura, she demonstrated personally how to combine work and family but also pushed policies that would help other women do the same. These views have made her popular with voters but at times less appreciated by conservatives in the CDU. To become a plausible candidate to succeed Mrs Merkel, she will first have to shore up her support within the party’s base.
Women are gaining a higher profile in Mrs Merkel’s government more generally. Four of the SPD’s cabinet positions have gone to women, with some of the portfolios dearest to party members: labour, women and integration of foreigners. In another surprise, Jörg Asmussen, a Social Democrat who has the German seat on the board of the European Central Bank (ECB), will return to Berlin. Mr Asmussen will be missed in Frankfurt, having acted as a bridge between the bank and the German government and voters in the euro crisis. The candidate to replace him at the ECB is another woman, Sabine Lautenschläger-Peiter, the number two at the German Bundesbank. She belongs to no party, but is an expert on bank regulation who often talks out against bankers with big bonuses.
Mrs Merkel has given no hints about her own career plans beyond denying some speculation that she might step down in mid-term, around the time of her tenth anniversary as chancellor. The previous CDU chancellor, Helmut Kohl, served four terms but then lost the 1998 election. Thinking of him and Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first post-war chancellor, Mrs von der Leyen has in the past evaded questions about her ambitions by saying that in the CDU “each generation has its chancellor,” and hers already has Angela Merkel. If Mrs von der Leyen does her new job well, she may reconsider.
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