For years now Angela Merkel’s opponents have prophesied a “Känzlerdämmerung”, a “twilight of the Chancellor”. There were several false dawns: Merkel survived both the Euro crisis and the backlash to her welcoming refugee policy in 2015. But this time, the critics are right. Germany’s famously durable and adaptable leader is truly on her last legs.
Merkel announced today at a press conference in Berlin that she will not run for another term as leader at the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party conference in December. Nor will she run for another term as chancellor. Nor will she take any European office in the future. After the next federal elections, planned for 2021, Merkel’s time in politics is over.
Merkel does intend to remain chancellor for the rest of her term – even though she had previously said that party leadership and the chancellorship belong hand in hand. (In 2004, her predecessor, SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder, gave up his role as party chairman and briefly kept the top job – until he lost a vote of confidence in German’ s parliament the next year.) However, it’s not Merkel’s views on the ideal configuration of the party leadership that will determine how long she lasts.
With the parties that make up Germany’s governing “grand coalition” losing votes with each passing week, it’s unclear how long this government can muddle through. CDU MPs already had surprised political Berlin in September by voting out Volker Kauder, a Merkel ally who had been the leader of the party’s group in the Bundestag. Change is afoot. What is now officially Merkel’s final term could well be over before 2021.
The immediate trigger for this partial resignation was yesterday’s election in the state of Hesse. Merkel’s CDU lost nearly half of the voters who backed it in 2013, scoring 27 per cent, its worst result there since 1966. “The cold hard numbers are bitter,” Merkel told journalists. That poor result follows the recent election in Bavaria, where Merkel’s sister party, the CSU, suffered massive losses at the hands of the Greens and the far-right AfD, as did her coalition partner, the SPD. The entire slide began when both the CDU and the SPD lost votes to smaller rivals in the 2017 federal elections.
This is the state of Germany’s big-tent parties in 2018. They are keeping their grip on the levers of powers in Berlin, but voters are making it clear in surveys and at the ballot box that they want something new. Something more left-wing, or right-wing, or environmentally-friendly, or just plain different.
Merkel pointed to the poor work of the Berlin coalition as the main reason for the poor result in Hesse. Formed as a fall-back option after talks between the CDU/CSU, Free Democrats, and Greens collapsed, this government has been dogged by infighting, in particular CSU chairman Horst Seehofer’s frequent attacks on Merkel’s refugee policy. “The image that the Federal Government is presenting is unacceptable,” Merkel said, and it was time to “open a new chapter”.
In fact Merkel spoke quite forcefully by her standards, admitting that, after Hesse, Berlin “can’t just move on the daily agenda” and that this election was a “turning point”. According to journalist Robin Alexander of the conservative daily Die Welt, CDU leaders appreciated Merkel’s decision when they heard of it just before the press conference, giving her a standing ovation. In a way, this is a brave decision that takes back some initiative and could allow her to have more influence on the next chapter.
But brave or not, this was the starting gun for the race for the CDU crown. Both allies and critics are stepping up to replace her. Among the critics, Health Minister Jens Spahn stands the best chance. The sharp, ambitious 38 year-old has been carefully building his profile, presenting himself as a new, more conservative face for a party that Merkel has led to the centre in recent years. He would jump at the chance to lead the CDU into the next election. There’s also Friedrich Merz, a former leader of the party’s Bundestag group who Merkel pushed aside during her rise to power in the early 2000s. Merz would be a blast from the past – he is currently the supervisory board chairman of Blackrock Germany, the asset manager.
Merkel refrained from taking sides at the press conference, but if she had her way Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer would get the job. The 56 year-old CDU General Secretary has served as the chancellor’s right-hand woman since 2018, when she left her post as prime minister of the state of Saarland. She belongs to the party’s centrist wing, and her pragmatism and attention to detail will remind many voters of Merkel. The German press often praises her for being down-to-earth and unpretentious.
The race is wide open. Merkel told Germans today that the CDU is in a “period of possibility.” The only sure thing is that she won’t be around for all that much longer.
Noah Gordon is an editor at Berlin Policy Journal.