German Chancellor Angela Merkel unveiled her third-term Cabinet on Sunday, with a long-time rival set to take the toughest job and a party rebel cast as a possible successor to the German leader.
Merkel faced reporters after a meeting of her Christian Democrats (CDU) and announced the widely expected reappointment of Wolfgang Schaeuble as finance minister.
However, she landed a coup by tapping mother-of-seven Ursula von der Leyen as Germany’s first female minister of defense.
The news sparked frenzied media speculation that the 55-year-old was now Merkel’s heir apparent.
“She will have an exciting, very challenging task and I am certain that she will do it very, very well,” Merkel said.
Earlier Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the power-sharing government, said he would become Merkel’s vice-chancellor and head up what the media labelled a “super ministry” responsible for the economy and energy policy.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier is to return as minister of foreign affairs, a job he held under Merkel during her first term from 2005 to 2009 when she also led a left-right “grand coalition.”
The SPD kept a pledge to fill half of the Cabinet seats allotted to them with women.
Left-wing firebrand Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s current general secretary, is to become labor minister, sharing responsibility for rolling out Germany’s first national minimum wage — a condition the SPD set for the alliance with Merkel.
Party Vice-Chairwoman Manuela Schwesig is to take charge of family affairs, and SPD Treasurer Barbara Hendricks is headed for the environment ministry.
Gabriel said another SPD deputy leader, Aydan Ozoguz, would become state minister for immigration, refugees and integration — the highest office ever held in Germany by a woman from the country’s 3-million-strong Turkish community.
Von der Leyen, a rising star in the CDU, has at times openly challenged Merkel on policy — most recently this year over a call for binding quotas for female executives.
By handing her the high-profile brief, Merkel indicated that she did not bear a grudge and inspired rampant rumors about a bright political future in Berlin.
The “super ministry” that Gabriel, a former environment minister, will lead is to manage Germany’s transition away from nuclear power and toward greater use of renewable energy sources.
The brief stems from Merkel’s abrupt decision in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster in March 2011 to shut down all of Germany’s reactors by 2022.
The radical policy shift has seen energy costs rise for consumers and driven up greenhouse gas emissions as the country turns to coal to fill a power supply gap.
Given the complexity of the task, many analysts saw the appointment as a poisoned chalice handed by Merkel to Gabriel, her likely challenger in 2017 should she stand for a fourth term.
“We have hard work ahead of us,” Gabriel said.
Analyst Claire Demesmay of the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank, said Merkel and her returning Minister of Foreign Affairs Steinmeier had a good working relationship despite different takes on complex countries such as Russia.
Merkel hailed Schaeuble, the main architect of Germany’s tough-love response to the eurozone crisis, saying he stood “for the stability of the euro and the policies connected to it.”