Merkel’s party ousts close ally of chancellor from top…

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BERLIN – A close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel was ousted Tuesday as head of her conservative bloc’s parliamentary group, a surprise defeat that dealt a blow to the longtime German leader’s authority in her own ranks.

Volker Kauder, who had led the parliamentary group of Merkel’s Union bloc since she became chancellor in 2005, was defeated by Ralph Brinkhaus – a budget policy expert who until now has been one of his deputies.

Kauder, who had Merkel’s support, had been widely expected to prevail in Tuesday’s vote of lawmakers from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union. But he was defeated by a 125-112 margin, with two abstentions.

The vote followed a wobbly start to Merkel’s fourth government, a coalition of the Union and the center-left Social Democrats, which has squabbled persistently since it took office in March. It came a year after the conservative parties lost significant support in an election that saw the far-right Alternative for Germany enter parliament.

The 50-year-old Brinkhaus, who isn’t well-known to most Germans, was the first challenger Kauder had faced since taking office 13 years ago.

He hasn’t suggested any significant policy changes, and has stressed that his candidacy wasn’t directed against Merkel but was for the “independence” of the parliamentary group. After Tuesday’s vote, he said it’s important to “get to work quickly.”

The vote comes just as the government tries to get past an embarrassing two-week argument over the future of Germany’s domestic intelligence chief, whom coalition leaders eventually agreed to move to a job at the Interior Ministry after had he appeared to downplay far-right violence against migrants.

Merkel said Monday that she regrets how that dispute was handled, and said the government had been “too preoccupied with ourselves in recent months.”

This is largely expected to be Merkel’s final term, though the chancellor hasn’t yet set out her future plans.

In a step acknowledging pressures for renewal, Merkel earlier this year made a popular state governor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, her party’s new general secretary. She also chose Jens Spahn, an ambitious young conservative and sometime critic, as her new health minister.

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