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13 January 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:21am

With Germany’s political future in the balance, centrist “Merkel voters” will be crucial

Angela Merkel’s cautious, incremental progressivism drew strong support from women and migrants. Can her successor retain them?

By Jeremy Cliffe

A big year looms in German politics. Angela Merkel is stepping down after 16 years as chancellor. On 16 January her Christian Democrat Union (CDU) will pick a new leader. Then, in late spring, it will make that person – or possibly someone else – its candidate to succeed her as chancellor. The general election on 26 September will be the most open in a generation.

To understand the political dynamics, contemplate the historical choice at the heart of Merkelism. Between 1998 and 2005 a “red-green” coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens modernised the recently reunified country: liberalising the old federal republic’s conservative social policies; paving the way for a multi-ethnic conception of German identity; deploying troops into combat abroad for the first time since 1945; prodding industries towards a greener future; and introducing welfare cuts purporting to adapt the economy to globalisation. The fundamental choice made by Merkel’s four governments from 2005 has been to continue the country on that trajectory, rather than to deviate from it.

That explains Merkelism’s strengths: its moderation, the stability of its course and the cautiously progressive measures often purloined from the SPD (modern family policies, the minimum wage) and Green traditions (ending nuclear power, admitting over one million refugees). It also explains Merkelism’s weaknesses: its reactiveness and preference for the more comfortable work of bedding in previous reforms over developing new ones for the future.

[See also: How the contours of the new Germany are still emerging, 30 years after reunification]

And it explains its electoral formula. Advancing a project begun by the previous red-green government meant reshaping the CDU’s old electoral coalition. Parts of the party’s right wing have migrated to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), especially in the former communist east, and to the right-liberal Free Democrats (FDP). But the losses have largely been made up by moderate voters who previously tended towards the centre left. Christian Odendahl of the Centre for European Reform says these “Merkel voters” include many women, people with migrant roots and centrists reassured by the chancellor’s incremental progressivism.

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The ‘migrant vote’ shifted to the CDU after 2015
Percentage of migrant vote share by party

That the CDU now does disproportionately well among these groups is a product both of its long-standing knack for capturing Germany’s political centre – but also Merkel’s distinctive profile and style. As an eastern, Protestant woman in a party dominated by western, Catholic men, she has always been something of an outsider; enabling her to cut a distinctive, inscrutable and sometimes almost apolitical figure, semi-detached from the internal power squabbles that have chewed up many of her rivals and would-be successors.

All of this informs the two big questions hanging over the coming election year – and thus Germany’s long-term future. Will the CDU (and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union or CSU) continue to offer continuity with the past two decades or break from them? And will the “Merkel voters” drawn to the party in support of that project stay or go?

[See also: How 2020 played out for the world’s leaders]

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The leadership vote will be the first big indication. On the ballot: three western, Catholic men. Friedrich Merz is a veteran right-winger who sparred with Merkel in the early 2000s and proposes a break from Merkelism in favour of populist dog-whistles to win back AfD and FDP voters. Armin Laschet is the affable state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, a moderate offering continuity with the Merkel formula. Norbert Röttgen is also closer to that formula than Merz but wants to adapt it faster to a changing country, making the CDU younger, more female and more digital.

Merz is a polarising figure but may have an advantage among the party’s grass roots. Laschet is underwhelming but backed by much of its establishment. Röttgen was considered a long shot but has had a good campaign. So the result could be close and will probably go to a second, run-off round. The subsequent weeks will test the winning candidate’s propositions about the Merkel formula, both in national opinion polls and in two important state elections in March.

The female vote in Germany has moved back to the CDU
Difference between female and male vote in elections, % points

If Merkel voters drift off and are not replaced, the CDU and CSU may turn to either Jens Spahn, the health minister, or Markus Söder, the state premier of Bavaria. Both are younger and newer faces in federal politics, have criticised Merkel from the right in the past, and have recast themselves as more centrist figures since. Both have gained popularity by advocating tough pandemic response measures. Both are publicly coy about their ambitions but privately mulling their options in the event that the new CDU leader struggles in the weeks before the CDU and CSU pick their joint chancellor candidate in the late spring.

[See also: How widespread is the British variant of Covid-19 in Europe?]

The Merkel voters will also be crucial at the election. Will they stay in the CDU/CSU camp or migrate to the SPD or the Greens? Both centre-left parties are lining up moderate candidates in precisely that hope. If the Merkel voters do switch, can the party replace them by winning back the more conservative voters who found the Merkel formula too red-ish and green-ish?

Merkel’s gambit will loom over the aftermath too, by shaping the range of possible coalition governments. First, the electoral cost of nabbing red-green “Merkel voters” has been the transfer of some right-wing voters to a party, the AfD, that is too toxic to include in coalition calculations. Second, the socio-economic shifts of the past two decades, expanding the pool of economically centrist but socially liberal voters, have benefited the Greens most of all. Both of these trends give the left, and especially the Greens, more paths to power and make the most likely outcome a mould-breaking CDU/CSU-Green coalition. An apt legacy for Angela Merkel. 

This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war