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7 August 2020updated 05 Jul 2022 1:40pm

Angela Merkel’s long chancellorship is nearing its close, but Merkelism will live on

A primer on German politics as it approaches an epochal transition.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In a quiet corner of Germany – the small, picturesque university city of Erfurt – 5 February 2020 was an unusually dramatic day. In the parliament of the eastern state of Thuringia the pro-business liberal Thomas Kemmerich was elected minister-president with the help not just of the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) but also the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Thuringian politics was in shock. A left-wing politician simply dumped the traditional congratulatory bouquet of flowers at Kemmerich’s feet rather than handing it to him. Soon the shockwaves had reached Berlin and wrecked the carefully laid exit plan of Angela Merkel, the EU’s best-known and longest-serving incumbent head of government, who has emphatically ruled out seeking a fifth term as Germany’s chancellor after next year’s general election.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the moderate and unflashy CDU general secretary, had succeeded Merkel as the party’s leader just over a year earlier in a narrow runoff against Friedrich Merz, a conservative whom Merkel herself had defeated as she consolidated her preeminence in the CDU in the early 2000s. The win for AKK, as she is known, had been seen as Merkel anointing a successor who was very much like her. Over the course of 2019, however AKK struggled to stamp her authority on the party and made a series of gaffes. Then, this February, came the sight of its Thuringian branch voting the same way as the AfD on the new minister-president; the final proof to AKK’s critics that she had lost her grip.

Taken aback by the outrage, on 8 February Kemmerich resigned. But in the CDU the damage had been done. On 10 February 2020 AKK resigned and Merkel was suddenly left without an heir apparent. Things looked grim. It seemed like Merz would take over the CDU leadership (and thus would probably be the party’s candidate for chancellor in the 2021 election) and that Merkel, so obviously at odds with the new leader of her own party and already committed not to run again, would become a lame duck.

Then coronavirus struck. Germany was well prepared. Its decentralised network of research laboratories had already moved fast to start testing. The country’s first infection cluster was among healthy young people who had caught the virus while skiing in the Alps, buying the system additional time to prepare to protect older, infirm citizens. Lockdowns were implemented fairly promptly and with a high degree of public support. A significant factor was the fact that the woman at the wheel – Merkel – was calm and clear in her public announcements and led the federal government’s response with all the rigour and authority of a trained scientist. Her approval ratings, already high, soared; and with them those of the CDU. The party’s leadership election was postponed to December.


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Now, with that election starting to loom, the political landscape looks very different from how it did in February. Merz, with his small-state credo and anti-Merkel opportunism, looks unsuited to the present moment and has lost support. That leaves two other declared contenders for the CDU leadership: Armin Laschet, the centrist minister-president of the populous western state of North Rhine-Westphalia who is backed by the health minister Jens Spahn; and Norbert Röttgen, the head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee. But both of these have their difficulties too. Laschet styled himself as the voice of looser lockdowns, failing to read a cautious public mood and unwittingly setting himself up for a PR disaster when the first big post-lockdown resurgence of the virus occurred at a meat processing factory in his state. Some in Berlin have speculated that he might even switch places with his junior running mate, the younger and more popular Spahn. Meanwhile Röttgen is serious and worldly, but lacks a base in the party.

Laschet might well win the CDU’s leadership in December. But in Berlin his credibility as the party’s chancellor candidate (the two roles often elide but are formally distinct) in the election due by autumn next year is in doubt. Some are starting to ask: might the answer come not from the CDU at all but from Bavaria?

Until recently that seemed silly. Germany has 16 federal states. In 15 of them the CDU runs parliamentary candidates but in the 16th – the big, rich and culturally distinctive southern state of Bavaria – it gives a free run to the Christian Social Union (CSU), a similar conservative party that is a little more left on economics and a little more right on social matters. The two parties, CDU and CSU, sit together in the Bundestag and put up a joint chancellor candidate. Only twice has that candidate come from the CSU, in 1980 and in 2002, and both times this was unsuccessful as popularity in Bavaria failed to translate into Germany-wide appeal. In recent years the two parties have been at loggerheads, particularly over the migration crisis and its aftermath (in summer 2018 CSU leader Horst Seehofer threatened to bring down Merkel’s newly formed fourth government over asylum policy). Bavaria, it is often sighed, is different.

But things have moved fast. Seehofer has been replaced by his longtime, younger rival Markus Söder as leader of the CSU. Vulpine and ambitious, Söder initially followed his predecessor by running on a starkly socially conservative platform in the Bavarian state election in October 2018. The CSU won, as always, but suffered major losses to the Greens – since which Söder has reinvented himself as a more conciliatory and environmentalist figure. He soared in popularity during the lockdown and afterwards as a steady proponent of tough lockdowns (a former journalist with an eye for headlines, he is a good communicator). On 15 July he received Merkel in great style as she attended a special meeting of the Bavarian cabinet at the lakeside palace complex at Herrenchiemsee in the foothills of the Alps. The TV footage showed the two arriving in a horse-drawn cart, cruising on the lake and palling around in the palace’s hall of mirrors.

It was not an endorsement. Merkel keeps her cards close to her chest. But it certainly illustrated a dawning sense that Söder was growing into a big role – that week’s Der Spiegel put him on its cover with the strapline “The Legacy Hunter” – and a serious candidate to succeed Merkel.

Whether he will run is also another matter. Söder long coveted the jobs he now has: CSU leader and Bavarian minister-president. It would take a lot for him to gamble all of that, so recently attained, on the big job in Berlin. He clearly enjoyed the grandeur of his day out with Merkel at Herrenchiemsee, and likes being considered up to the chancellorship. But the general assumption in political circles has long been that he would only accept the CDU/CSU chancellor candidacy if the CDU, including its new leader, brought it to him on a silver platter. Now, as Söder soars ahead of the other contenders in polls and the CSU leader repeatedly dodges journalist’s invitations to rule out running, that calculus is changing.


But what of the woman who still looms large over German and European politics? Merkel has been chancellor since 2005, when her fellow world leaders included Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and George W Bush. It is hard to imagine Germany, and the continent, without her. And yet the hour is now nearing when Merkel will stand down, receive the military tattoo reserved for departing chancellors and go off to her house amid the forests and lakes of the Uckermark, north of Berlin, to “make potato soup and listen to Wagner” (as an acquaintance of hers once described her retirement plans to me). What will remain once she has gone?

You can split Merkelism into two parts. The first is ideological. It is not true that the chancellor has always eschewed big decisions or schemes. She first ran for the chancellery in 2005, amid high unemployment in Germany, having flirted with a tax-cutting plan so starkly radical it almost cost her the win. It was a lesson in caution. But nor is it true that she lacks an ideology today, 15 years down the line. Ralph Bollmann of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of her biographers, tells me that it is on the one hand firm (“democratic, open, pro-rights and with a sane, clear sense of responsibility for Germany’s past”) but on the other hand pragmatic, with a preference for order and a sense that political interests need to be balanced. Bollman speculates that Merkel read Karl Popper as a young woman in East Germany, coming across the censored philosopher through her family’s friends in the West or fellow students at the University of Leipzig, a notable hub of dissent.

The second part of Merkelism is the functional one. The chancellor was dealt a good hand when she took Germany’s reins in 2005: China was rising (and with it a big market for German engineering exports), the painful economic reforms had already been made by her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, the euro would hugely benefit German industry and the previous “red-green” government had launched important processes of social modernisation and greening. As chancellor her canny response to this, or perhaps just her innate instinct, has broadly been not to get in the way of those factors and ongoing shifts, and occasionally to nudge them on their way. This method even coined a new verb, merkeln, or to put off big decisions. But occasionally she took really big calls: switching off Germany’s nuclear power stations from 2011, opposing calls to expel Greece from the euro in 2012, letting in migrants in the 2015 crisis and, earlier this year, supporting an EU recovery fund that breaks a big German taboo by issuing common European debt.

So what now? Going by the race to become CDU leader this year, and the race to succeed Merkel as chancellor new year, Merkelism as an ideology (liberal-conservative, economically centrist, open and pro-Western, if sometimes parochial) is broadly safe. Laschet, Röttgen and, perhaps most significantly, Söder all broadly subscribe to it. The CDU governs with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and will most likely govern after the next election with the also centre-left Greens, who – as in Bavaria in 2018 – have surged nationally and surpassed the SPD as the leading force left of the centre.

But even if the CDU loses power next year, with neither a CDU-Green (“black-green”) nor CDU-SPD (“black-red”) government possible, the most likely alternative would also be Merkelish, in a way. This would see the Greens or SPD lead a “green-red-red” or “red-green-red” coalition with each other and the socialist Left party. Under Green leadership the chancellor would be either Robert Habeck or Annalena Baerbock, both moderates in their party with a big dose of Merkel’s gentle centrism, and under SPD leadership it would most probably be Olaf Scholz, the centrist SPD finance minister and a man who styles himself as a ploddingly reliable SPD version of Merkel. If there is a big ideological difference between the conceivable post-Merkel chancellors it is on foreign policy. Laschet, Söder and possibly Scholz lean towards dovish postures towards autocratic foreign economic powers like Russia and China. Röttgen, Habeck and Baerbock tend to prioritise human rights and global governance concerns.

When it comes to Merkelism as a style of government (cautious, inscrutable, rarely outflanking an electorate’s own mores apart from at stark moments of major flux and impetus), greater change is to be expected. The chancellor’s way of wielding power is much more distinctive than the somewhat vague agenda in whose interests she does so. It is much more rooted in her own past. Merkel grew up in East Germany not entirely fitting in (“the daughter of a Protestant clergyman was always going to be an outsider” says Bollmann) in its paranoid society and remained an outsider, of a different sort, as she rocketed through the ranks of the mostly Catholic and male CDU in the post-reunification 1990s. She rose by obscuring her own beliefs and traits, biding her time before making sudden moves at the right moment. The habit never died. It marked her chancellorship. It is unlikely to mark that of whoever replaces her.

On the European stage, Emmanuel Macron as French president will work well (with the usual caveats about differing Franco-German interests) with any of the obvious successors to Merkel. The most significant change will be one of seniority. When she became chancellor he had only just left university. Her experience has always slightly edged his dynamism in the European pecking order. But with Merkel gone, Macron will be the obvious dominant force in the continent’s politics. So watch Berlin when she goes, and watch who replaces her. But also watch Paris and how the young man who observed the first years of her long rule from a lowly station in France rises to fill her place.

Read more from the European Politics special series here…

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