Schadenfreude – defined by Lisa Simpson as “a German term for ‘shameful joy’, taking pleasure in the suffering of others” – is everybody’s favorite German word.
Or so it seems, when reading the right-wing, and Brexit supporting press. The Daily Telegraph – a publication not known for its love of Angela Merkel – could hardly contain its freude after Volker Kauder, Merkel’s preferred candidate for the position as parliamentary spokesperson, lost an internal ballot to the relative unknown deputy Ralph Brinkhaus. The British paper, not for the first time, declared that this was the “beginning of the end” for Frau Merkel.
There can be no doubt that it was a blow for Merkel. Kauder was a close ally. But his defeat is not automatically a victory for her critics. Horst Seehofer, the interior minister and a fierce Merkel critic, had also supported Kauder. To see the relatively minor rebellion among backbenchers as a prelude to a vote of no confidence in Merkel, is at best, wishful thinking on the part of opponents of the German Chancellor.
Merkel did not seem alarmed, but then again that is not her style. She admitted the defeat – just like she has previously admitted other mistakes and defeats. “That is how democracy works, sometimes there are losses, and there is no way to sugarcoat it,” she said immediately after the vote.
Merkel has faced many crises throughout her 13 years in power: the financial crisis in 2008, the Greek debt crisis, the crisis in Ukraine and more recently the refugee crisis. In all cases, the foreign press began writing her political obituary. This has hitherto been premature. Merkel has survived, not least because there is no alternative to her. Her CDU-Party is still the strongest party in Germany by a considerable distance. There is, at present, no credible successor to Merkel. No other politician commands the support enjoyed by her. More than 40 per cent still want her to stay in power
This year has been characterised by an internal battle with aforementioned Horst Seehofer, the leader of the sister-party CSU, which only contests seats in Bavaria. The party, which is to the right of Merkel’s CDU, has ruled the southern state ever since the Second World War, generally by combining social conservatism and a hint of nationalism. But the party’s overall control of the Bavarian Landtag (local parliament) is threatened by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. In an attempt to turn the tide, Markus Söder, the Bavarian Ministerpräsident (or first minister) has consistently criticised Merkel’s immigration policy.
That immigration is a controversial issue is an understatement. To make matters worse, Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) – roughly the equivalent of MI5 – questioned the validity of video footage showing far-right groups chasing immigrants in the German town of Chemnitz. The spy chief was sacked. But matters were made worse when Horst Seehofer then offered Herr Maaßen a highly paid job as a government adviser. This was intended to strengthen CSU. It has not. The CSU is facing its worst defeat in the local elections on 14 October 2018.
Merkel is head of a coalition government. The defeat of Volker Kauder and the case of Mr Maaßen show that she is not all powerful. It has not been an easy year for Mrs Merkel – but then again, she has faced worse in the past. She is unlikely to step down anytime soon.
Matt Qvortrup is author of Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader.