“May Day, May Day. We are sinking.”
“This is the German Coast Guard. What are you thinking?”
This advert for Berlitz, the language school, is a good metaphor for German politics and the decline of Angela Merkel. After this weekend’s election blow in Hesse, where support for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party fell by 11 points, she is now standing down as the leader of her party. Merkel also announced that she will quit as chancellor in 2021.
This isn’t surprising. In the past few months, Merkel has defended her position as party leader and repeatedly said that she should stay in that job as long as she leads the country. The reality, however, is that – politically – she has been a sinking ship ever since the spring federal election last year, when the CDU scored its worst election result since 1949. The liberals and the greens decided not to go into government with her. Then the Social Democrats, or SPD, agreed to form yet another grand coalition with Merkel, but that project hasn’t worked out. On many issues it has been difficult to say if the SPD is working for the government, or the opposition.
Worse, frustration with Merkel has been growing within her own ranks. Merkel had to appoint a new general secretary of the CDU after Peter Tauber – a key ally – resigned after the last election amid strong internal criticism of a failed election campaign. Critics of the chancellor recently staged another coup when they ousted Volker Kauder – another Merkel ally – as the leader of the CDU/CSU fraction in the Bundestag. But these, and other rebellions, haven’t silenced the plotters. Berlin has been full of whispers about plots against Merkel. Speculation about who can deliver the message to Merkel that it is time for her to go has been rife in the German capital. And this debate about Merkel's future doesn't just relate to her job as party leader but about her role as Chancellor too.
Two Merkel allies this afternoon both insisted to me that she can stay as chancellor while the party is rebuilt, under new leadership, for the next election. While it is important to give the German centre-right some new and fresh faces, they argue, the election in Hesse – where the CDU seems to have lost more support to the greens than to the Alternative fur Deutschland – is proof that voters would come back if the party showed more energy and had more youthful representation. But taking the cue from the Berlitz commercial, one has to ask: what are they thinking?
Merkel has been the dominant force of German politics for almost 15 years and she isn’t staying on as chancellor because she wants to groom her successor. Merkel is fighting for her legacy – especially her policy on migration – and wants a few more years to help stabilise European politics, especially through some reforms of the Eurozone. But both her legacy on migration and her desire for deeper Eurozone cooperation sit uncomfortably with CDU orthodoxy. New aspiring leaders will now have to show they are sufficiently different from Merkel and represent something other than ‘Merkelism’ – all while she is in power and leading the federal government. The next CDU leader could easily end up clashing with Merkel on key policies – and that at a time when the coalition government is fragile and in need of the party’s loyal support.
The writing is on the wall for Merkel’s chancellorship, not just her leadership of the CDU. Many among the CDU rank and file want a new leader that can rebuild credibility among Germany’s conservative voters at the same time as he, or she, can lead an agenda of broad economic modernisation. Merkel’s big political project came from the era of political triangulation and was aimed at poaching voters from the centre left by positioning her and the CDU party at the political centre. The risks of that strategy were known and articulated already by her early critics. They particularly feared the arrival of a new party to the right of CDU, one that would make inroads into the traditional constituencies of the centre-right and make the party bleed to the right, as well as to the centre. If the election in Hesse actually is a bellwether of Merkel and her strategy, it is not just that she is losing supporters to AfD but that she cannot motivate enough centrists to stay with her rather than jumping over to the greens.
The next leader is likely to be either Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party’s general secretary, or Jens Spahn, the current health minister who has openly challenged Merkel on key policies. Whoever takes over will have to define a CDU strategy for a new era. If Merkel and her hapless coalition government stay in power until the next election, it may be that the best way to ensure CDU victory in the next election is to campaign against Merkel and her legacy.