Imagining Germany without Angela Merkel has got harder

Bundestag DEU, Deutschland, Germany, Berlin, 24.04.2020 Uebersicht vom leeren Plenarsaal Deutscher Bundestag waehrend einer Sitzungspause in Berlin, Deutschland. Overview of the empty German parliament Deutscher Bundestag in Berlin on April 24, 2020, Germany.No Use Switzerland. No Use Germany. No Use Japan. No Use Austria
Editor's note:

In advance of September federal elections and without a clear successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s political landscape is in flux, writes Constanze Stelzenmüller. This post originally appeared in the Financial Times.

Is Germany ready for life after chancellor Angela Merkel, who has ruled out a fifth term after national elections this year?

Until recently, Germany was Europe’s rock of stability, and Germans looked towards 2021 with confidence. Ms Merkel was enjoying sky-high approval ratings for her steady management of the pandemic. Her leadership of the six-month EU council presidency — which included throwing German economic power behind a debt-financed EU rescue package and preventing a no-deal Brexit — got (mostly) good marks.

National polls have for months shown a majority for Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Green party coalition. Based on current numbers, this potential pairing is the only two-party alternative to the now exhausted grand coalition of the CDU and centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). Tested at state level but not yet in Berlin, it enjoys some national popularity. And its prospect is seen with even greater optimism in western capitals, notably among the US’s incoming Biden administration which hopes for a firmer, more forward-leaning German security policy.

But with the pandemic now skyrocketing, Ms Merkel has had to extend Germany’s lockdown. Her coalition is fighting over slow vaccination rates and inadequate supplies. The national mood has shifted from self-congratulatory to glum, and the political landscape ahead of September’s election looks more fragmented and volatile.

Start with Ms Merkel’s CDU, which elects a new party leader (and presumptive candidate for chancellor) this month. Competition among the three official candidates — businessman Friedrich Merz, state leader Armin Laschet and the federal legislature’s foreign policy chair Norbert Röttgen — has become a circular firing squad. Unreassuringly, “none of the above” regularly gets second place in surveys seeking to ascertain a winner among the three.

Bavaria’s leader Markus Söder keeps being touted as an alternative, mostly on the basis of his vigorous non-denials and his limitless self-confidence in his own pandemic management. But he has little support in the party outside of his state; and Bavaria now has one of the country’s highest covid case rates.

Then there is the SPD. It has an uncanny knack for making the CDU look good, despite having real talents. Finance minister Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s chancellor candidate, is a popular pragmatist. The party’s foreign policy speaker Nils Schmid has made a mark with forceful views on China.

Alas, the SPD leadership has other political ideas: a Eurosceptic and anti-Nato coalition with the Greens and post-communist Die Linke. Most recently, it blocked a defence ministry plan to acquire weaponised drones to protect German troops deployed abroad. This did nothing for the party’s ratings, putting a hard left three-way coalition out of reach. The party’s three most senior defence experts have also left.

All of this goes some way to explain why the Greens are Germany’s second most popular party. Founded as an anti-establishment movement, they have become experienced in governance. Their youngish leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock are centrist and polished. But the Green base remains in a state of yeasty ferment — a source of unpredictability in any coalition.

As for the far-right Alternative for Germany, it has failed in its strategy of co-opting parts of the CDU, and is plateauing in the polls. But it looks set to stay as a political receptacle for protest votes and it continues to probe for weaknesses in the armour of democracy. As such, its existence contributes to making stable two-party coalitions even less likely in the future — precisely at a time when Europe and the US most need a strong, reliable German partner.