Ralph who? Unlikely figure ousts Merkel’s Bundestag ally

Disgruntled CDU backbenchers send signal to chancellor and further erode her power

A secret of chancellor Angela Merkel’s success these past 13 years has been knowing that, whatever happened elsewhere, she had full political cover in Berlin.

Under Volker Kauder, parliamentary party leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), her Bundestag MPs were an obedient bunch who rarely caused headaches.

But on Tuesday evening, in a rare rebellious moment, MPs ousted Kauder in a fresh setback for the German chancellor and CDU leader. The warning from her backbenchers: don’t take us for granted.

Though this was the first time since 1973 there was competition for the CDU post, few expected the incumbent would be ousted for Ralph Brinkhaus, a challenger with such a low-profile people still refer to him in Berlin as Ralph Who?


Brinkhaus, a 55-year-old tax consultant, is on his third Bundestag term and specialises in finance and budget policy. After starting out as a chancellor loyalist, he is seen now as more equivocal without straying into the anti-Merkel faction.

“The parliamentary party stands firmly behind Angela Merkel,” insisted Brinkhaus after the vote. “We two see eye to eye.”

Despite his conciliatory words, his election was another humiliating moment for Merkel and a further round of power erosion.

Refugee crisis

She knows it was Kauder who kept MPs in line during the turbulent days of the banking and euro crises – in particular the highly unpopular Greek bailout. The turning point came with the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, when more than one million people arrived in the country.

It was a highly divisive decision and, critics say, communicated badly. Merkel’s “we can manage this” refrain – without explaining how – revived the far-right Alternative für Deutschland.

It exploited integration and security fears over migrants and, largely ignored by Merkel, is now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.

The CDU, meanwhile, had its worst post-war election result a year ago. Ending the night down 55 seats, surviving MPs were furious when Merkel said: “I don’t see what we could have done differently.”

Blackening backbenchers’ mood further, Merkel had to sacrifice the key finance portfolio to return to power.

Her fourth term has seen her MPs – and their voters – looking on in annoyance and impatience at six months of cabinet tantrums, squabbles and resignation threats. Business as usual was no longer an option for CDU backbenchers tired of Kauder as majority-maker for Merkel.

And her last-minute appeal to re-elect him, motivated by a sense of loyalty, pushed some waverers over to Brinkhaus.

With her man beaten by 13 votes, a thin-lipped Merkel departed the Reichstag parliament building admitting: “There’s nothing to sugar-coat here.”

On Wednesday she ruled out tabling a confidence motion and has promised to support her new Bundestag point man “wherever I can”.

No mutiny for now

Dr Gero Neugebauer, a Berlin-based political scientist, sees no appetite for a full mutiny in the CDU. But restoring mutual trust will mean transforming the political culture of the CDU parliamentary party.

“MPs were viewed as a necessary evil, whose critique of CDU policy – particularly the chancellor – was suppressed,” said Neugebauer.

The CDU has never been a putsch party, and Brinkhaus is unlikely to change that. But the upset has raised the stakes for Merkel ahead of December’s party conference in Hamburg, a gathering of loyalists and emboldened rivals.

Given the long line of parliamentary party leaders who have transitioned to CDU leader and chancellor, Brinkhaus has added his name to the succession stakes to replace Merkel in the next three years.

From now on, Brinkhaus knows he is under close scrutiny as to whether he sees his path to a higher political plane best secured through loyalty towards Merkel, rebellion against her, or something in between.

So far he has been vague on his plans, though in a telling moment last month, he visited the chancellery to inform Merkel personally of his decision to run for the Bundestag job.

Anyone expecting Brinkhaus to be a political renegade would be well advised to recall the apocryphal Lenin quote: “If the Germans staged a revolution at a train station, they would buy platform tickets first.”