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Politics

Job switch by Merkel confidant draws criticism

Ronald Pofalla of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU could switch jobs soon and take on a lucrative management position at German rail operator Deutsche Bahn. Critics argue that it is too soon for a lobbyist job.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Ronald Pofalla - then still head of Angela Merkel's chancellery - said he wanted to spend more time at home, returning to private life. Now, though, it looks like he won't be retreating, but rather taking care of Germany's national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn. In spring, he could be part of the board of managing directors. The portfolio that's yet to be created for him could entail tasks such as the company's long-term strategic planning and - what's especially dodgy - to maintain good relations with the country's political leadership.

Pofalla - the chancellor's long-time confidant and intimate insider with excellent political connections - now turned chief lobbyist for Deutsche Bahn?

Opposition members of parliament are outraged - and even some leaders of Merkel's new coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), were critical of the all-so-sudden shift by the former chancellery head, a position equivalent to chief of staff.

State-owned companies as golden parachutes?

A train pulls in (photo: Martin Gerten/dpa)

Deutsche Bahn is a state-owned company - and that's a problem in Pofalla's case, says Aschoff

Pofalla is no expert on transportation; however, it could have helped that the German government quite conveniently owns Deutsche Bahn.

That's a problem, says Gerd Aschoff, head of Germany's Pro Bahn passengers' advocacy group. Aschoff isn't in principle against politicians taking on business jobs after their term has ended, "But it's a special case with Deutsche Bahn since it's a state-owned enterprise that is in many ways dependent on the government," he told DW. "This change of employment directly [after Pofalla's term] is problematic."

What makes matters worse for Aschoff is that Pofalla intends to keep his mandate as a member of parliament. That is a conflict of interest that cannot be ignored, said Aschoff. Furthermore, being an MP is a full-time job: "And now he wants to take on another full-time job that's well paid by Deutsche Bahn. This wouldn't work due to time constraints," he claims.

People on the managing board would usually get paid between 1.3 and 1.8 million euros ($1.8 - 2.5 million) per year.

Waiting period for jobs

Angela Merkel and Ronald Pofalla (photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa)

Merkel and Pofalla had a long, trusting relationship - how valuable are his political contacts for his new job?

Christian Humborg, who heads Transparency International's (TI) German chapter, doesnt think it's problematic if politicians move on to a job in the business sector. "That should be the norm that a politician who has terminated his career should be able to find a new job and shouldn't be limited by any constraints," he said. However, there is one exception to the rule: The new job shouldn't overlap with previous political work. That would exclude politicians from taking on lobbying activities that ex-politicians nowadays apparently pursue quite frequently.

For those cases, TI says a waiting period of three years would be warranted for politicians who choose to lobby - to prevent "a quick change of positions." Otherwise, you wouldn't be able to tell whether the person is speaking for a company, or for the government, Humborg says.

In Pofalla's case it certainly looks as if this position was solely created for the Merkel intimate, says Humborg, since there is nothing that would qualify him for the new job. It's quite astonishing "how someone who hasn't had any experience in a logistics enterprise nor in strategic planning can now rise to become the head of strategic operations at one of the world's largest transport concerns."

The debate over politicians entering the private sector is nothing new. Just a few months ago, another case made headlines when the news broke that CDU politician Eckart von Klaeden, an under-secretary in the Chancellor's office, intended to take a job lobbying for automaker Daimler.

Gerhard Schröder (left) (photo: Alexey Kudenko/RIA Novosti)

Former Chancellor Schröder (left) took on a lucrative lobby job for Gazprom

Former chancellor turned adviser for Gazprom

But the path to the private sector is not reserved for conservatives. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) was also severely criticized for taking on a position at Nord Stream, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom after he lost the elections in 2005. His Social Democrat colleague, Wolfgang Clement, also became a board member with the German energy company RWE shortly after leaving his post as labor minister. Otto Schily, also SPD, pushed for the introduction of biometric identifiers when he was in charge of the interior ministry. After his term ended, he joined the boards of two companies manufacturing biometric identification.

There are dozens of other examples. Journalist and author, Pascal Beucker, who has written a book on this phenomenon, calls the process the revolving door effect: "A politician goes through the door just to come back as a lobbyist to make use of his good political network," he said. This practice is legal in most cases, but is still "at least objectionable."

Former politicians serving as a door opener for businesses? According to Pro Bahn's Aschoff, moves like the Pofalla case, could ultimately harm both sides: politicians who have been accused of being self-serving individuals, and companies, such as Deutsche Bahn, which has been accused of serving the interest of politics, instead of the needs of its customers.

DW.DE