Germans were speculating over the “beginning of the end of the Merkel era” on Tuesday night after the chancellor suffered a shock defeat in a key vote of her party’s MPs.
For the first time since Angela Merkel took power almost 13 years ago, MPs from her Christian Democrat party (CDU) rejected her chosen candidate as their leader in parliament and voted instead for a challenger who had promised to be more independent.
The defeat was a body blow to Mrs Merkel’s authority and left her facing the prospect of backbench rebellion as she tries to get her coalition’s legislative programme through parliament.
“This is an uprising against Merkel,” Thomas Oppermann, a senior MP from her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), wrote on Twitter.
“This is an hour of democracy, and it has its defeats,” Mrs Merkel told her MPs as she conceded that her nominee had lost. “There is nothing to gloss over.”
It was the first time since 1973 a challenger had even dared to stand against an incumbent chancellor’s candidate for the leadership of the CDU’s group in parliament.
There is no direct equivalent of the German role in the UK: a leader of the party’s backbenchers who traditionally acts as a sort of elected Chief Whip.
Mrs Merkel nominated Volker Kauder, an arch-loyalist who has served her as parliamentary leader for 13 years for re-election, and her choice was endorsed by the rest of the party leadership.
But the 69-year-old Mr Kauder was defeated by Ralph Brinkhaus, a relative unknown who said he was standing as the candidate of change, to renew the party.
Mrs Merkel’s MPs sit in parliament with their more conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the two parties elect a single backbench leader.
After a bruising summer of power struggles between Mrs Merkel and the CSU leader, Horst Seehofer, some MPs were expected to rebel in a protest vote against Mr Kauder. But most forecasts predicted the challenger could hope for 30 per cent at most, and until the votes were counted defeat for Mrs Merkel’s candidate was considered unthinkable.
In the event, Mr Brinkhaus won by a knife edge, with 125 votes to Mr Kauder’s 112. Two MPs abstained.
The result casts doubt on Mrs Merkel's government's ability to get legislation through parliament. Her coalition has a majority of just 45, meaning a similar rebellion within her own party could defeat the government. While most backbench CDU and CSU MPs will not want to risk a confidence vote that could plunge them into a new election in which many would lose their seats according to the current polls, they may well relish the chance to wield their new power and demand a greater say in government.
Although the result was a clear rebellion against Mrs Merkel, it has come from an unexpected quarter. Mr Brinkhaus was at pains before the election to stress that he was not the anti-Merkel candidate. “I stand for new momentum in the party, not against the chancellor,” he said.
He does not belong to the conservative wing of the CDU which has made no secret of its desire to turn the party back from her more centrist path, and unlike her critics, he has not been outspoken against her refugee policy.
But he has pledged to make the party’s MPs more independent of the leadership, and made it clear he wants change. “Stability and calm are not enough,” he told MPs ahead of the vote. “What we need now is action, a sign of change, to the outside and to the party base. Courage, trust, confidence: that's what the country is missing now.”
The loss of the arch-loyalist Mr Kauder will be a blow for Mrs Merkel. It was Mr Kauder who whipped restive CDU MPs into backing her when times were tough, during the Euro crisis and over her migrant policy. It was also Mr Kauder who got the party to stand behind her at the decisive moment of her power struggle with Mr Seehofer earlier this year.
While Mrs Merkel is not expected to be toppled in the immediate future, the defeat was a clear sign her authority in her party is waning, and it was seized on by opposition parties as a sign her time in power is coming to an end.
“The defeat of Volker Kauder makes Angela Merkel’s loss of power in the CDU clear. The twilight of Merkel has finally begun,” Alice Weidel of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party said.
“This is the beginning of the end for Merkel. Her authority is massively damaged,” said Niema Movassat of The Left Party.