German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel's coalition yesterday defeated an election-year opposition bid to set a quota for female board members, in a vote that exposed a party rift and forced her to give ground.
The Bundestag lower house of parliament rejected the motion, which called for a 40 per cent binding quota for women in supervisory and management boards of large companies within a decade. After an emotional debate, 320 lawmakers voted "no", while 277 voted in favour, with one abstention.
Opposition deputies had forced the vote, which earlier in the week backed Merkel into a corner after some of her allies threatened to break ranks and help pass the motion, five months ahead of elections.
Urging parliament's support, Frank-Walter Steinmeier - a leading member of the centre-left Social Democrats - said if progress continued at the current rate, "it will take until the middle of the century until we have 40 per cent of supervisory boards occupied by women", adding: "That is decidedly too late."
Merkel, often cited as the world's most powerful woman, has opposed the introduction of compulsory quotas for women in the boardroom. But Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen has long been a staunch backer of the move and did not initially make it clear whether she would toe the party's line in yesterday's ballot.
At what was described by a senior party member as an "intensive discussion", leaders of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union agreed a compromise on Monday to include in its manifesto from 2020 a 30 per cent female quota in supervisory boards of large companies. The move marked a change of course just four months after CDU members backed a flexible approach for companies to voluntarily decide on quotas for women.
Merkel appeared to play down the internal squabbling.
"Issues of equal treatment, family policy, also the child-care benefit, such things are always discussed by us in the CDU with a great deal of passion," Merkel told the Bild mass-circulation daily. "And one learns, not all women think alike."
Media commentators viewed the change of policy as a setback for Merkel, who hopes to clinch a third term in September 22 general elections. "Instead of a compromise which everyone can take into the election campaign, there are bloody noses and distrust in the party," the Tagesspiegel said.