The German center’s collapse brings Merkel era to a close

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks as she attends a news conference following the Hesse state election in Berlin, Germany, October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke - RC1400EF7680
Editor's note:

The morning after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unpopular grand coalition was trounced in a bellwether election, she announced she would not stand for re-election as party chair in December, run for a fifth term as chancellor, or seek a top EU job in Brussels. Constanze Stelzenmüller explains what may come next. This piece originally appeared in the Financial Times.

Angela Merkel is known to be unflappable under pressure. But what makes her a rarity among politicians is that she knows when to concede defeat with dignity. The morning after her unpopular grand coalition was trounced in a bellwether election, Germany’s chancellor, in her 18th year as chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and her 13th as head of the government, announced she would not stand for re-election as party chair in December, run for a fifth term as chancellor, or seek a top EU job in Brussels.

Who becomes the next CDU chair is now the all-consuming question in Berlin. The first candidate out of the box was Friedrich Merz, one of Ms. Merkel’s oldest rivals. A wealthy corporate lawyer, he might hope for the support of the CDU’s disgruntled business and conservative wings. Another is CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a centrist thought to be Ms. Merkel’s preferred candidate. “AKK,” as she is known, stood down after successful re-election as prime minister of Saarland to put herself at the service of the chancellor. Since then she has been building influence, touring the country over the summer. The third is health minister Jens Spahn, a pronounced conservative and long-running leader of the “Merkel Must Go” faction in the CDU.

None of the three is a foregone conclusion. As the party chair job is now seen as the dry run for Ms. Merkel’s successor as chancellor, more competitors are likely to run on to the field in the coming weeks. And Sunday’s election in Hesse proves once more that this large, populous and affluent central state is a test bed for the country at large.

Ms. Merkel’s center-right CDU and her partner in the grand coalition (GroKo), the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), have strong traditional roots in the state’s pugilistic politics. Both lost a humiliating 11 percentage points in a vote that was squarely a poll on the performance of the struggling government in Berlin.

But Hesse has also been the forge of the country’s future politics: the Greens and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) were both founded here. For the past five years, the state has been governed by a CDU-Green coalition.

In Sunday’s vote, the Greens nearly doubled their vote share, becoming the state’s second-strongest party. The AfD is now represented in all the regional parliaments but, at 13 per cent, its vote share seems to be plateauing.

The fate of Ms. Merkel’s government still hangs in the balance. Many in the SPD want to leave the coalition. The leader of the center right Free Democrats has ruled out working with Ms. Merkel. The Greens, flushed with success, will probably scoff at the idea of being the junior partner in a minority government. But all these parties have reason to fear new elections and a protest vote for the AfD. Like it or not, the SPD’s best strategy for now is to hang on.

Larger questions about the future of German politics loom. For decades, the two big-tent parties, the CDU and SPD, defined the political center in Germany, serving as clearing houses for regional, ideological and class divisions. Yet across Europe, their sister parties have survived by assimilating some of their fringe challengers’ positions, as has happened in the Netherlands, or by transforming as in the U.K., where the Tories and Labour have become polarized.

Over nearly 20 years as party leader, Ms. Merkel has modernized her CDU and moved it into the political center. But, say her critics, she has thereby enabled the rise of the AfD. The Social Democrats, for their part, appear divided between nostalgia and fear of the future. The Hesse exit polls delivered a damning verdict: 14 per cent of voters thought the GroKo parties had answers for the country’s problems. More than 200,000 CSU and SPD voters crossed over to the Greens.

So are the Greens Germany’s new centrist party, or just a shiny bright receptacle for alienated CDU and SPD voters? With a premier in one of Germany’s 16 states and serving as coalition partners in eight more, they have left their wild and woolly roots of the 1970s behind them. But they have yet to prove they have ideas for how to govern a complex and anxious postindustrial society on the cusp of great changes. Or that they can be trusted to lead a major European power whose neighbors and allies are tired of its parochialism and introversion as threats multiply around them.

The stakes are raised higher by an AfD that is predicted to surge into second or even first place in three east German state elections in the autumn of 2019, while its hard-right wing seems to be tightening its grip on the party.

Extreme right parties across Europe are preparing a coordinated challenge to liberal democracy in May’s European elections.

The battle for leadership in Berlin is on. But whoever becomes the party chair in December—and the next chancellor—bears a responsibility that extends well beyond Germany.