Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister and one of Angela Merkel’s most prominent political rivals, announced his resignation as leader of her Bavarian sister party on Monday.
Mr Seehofer said he would stand down as leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) early next year but insisted he wanted to stay on as German interior minister.
“I will resign from the party leadership. That decision is final,” he told a press conference in Saxony. “My office as interior minister is completely unaffected by this. I will continue to serve.”
Mr Seehofer has been under pressure to resign as party leader since the CSU suffered heavy losses in regional elections in Bavaria last month.
Whether he can stay on as interior minister will depend on whether his party backs him to remain in the role or decides his time in frontline politics is over.
By standing down as leader but attempting to stay on in government he is emulating Mrs Merkel, who announced last month she would step down as leader of her Christian Democrat party (CDU) but wants to serve out her final term as chancellor.
Long known for his personal rivalry with Mrs Merkel, Mr Seehofer brought her coalition government to the brink of collapse in a power struggle over migrant policy earlier this year.
His threat to pull the CSU out of the coalition unless Mrs Merkel agreed to his demand to turn back migrants at the German border was widely seen as an attempt to head off the challenge from the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) in Bavarian regional elections.
But it backfired spectacularly. The CSU lost votes to the pro-migrant Greens as well as the AfD, and voters said they were unhappy with the turmoil in Berlin.
Mr Seehofer appears to have finished Mrs Merkel’s political career at the cost of his own. According to German press reports, he agreed to step down as CSU leader at a tense party meeting on Sunday night.
Senior party figures were said to be ready to tell Mr Seehofer he had to go if he did not agree. “They had the daggers in their robes, but they didn’t have to pull them out,” Bild newspaper commented.
But Mr Seehofer yesterday (MON) denied reports he had also agreed to stand down as interior minister.
Opposition parties on Monday called for him to resign from the government. “Every day Horst Seehofer remains interior minister is a day too long,” Katrin Göring-Eckardt of the Green Party said.
Mrs Merkel and her main coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), may well agree, after months of bitter disputes with Mr Seehofer.
But while ministerial appointments are theoretically in Mrs Merkel’s gift, she cannot afford to anger a coalition partner by rejecting its nominee for a post.
It remains to be seen whether the CSU will be prepared to continue to back Mr Seehofer as interior minister.
The party will choose a new leader early next year. The main candidates are expected to be Markus Söder, the regional prime minister of Bavaria, and Manfred Weber, who is leading the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) faction in next year’s European parliament elections and could become the next president of the European Commission.
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