Merkel’s Likely Successor: Nobody in Particular
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Politics watchers in Berlin describe this as a “Goetterinnendaemmerung,” the twilight of the goddesses: After a second painful state election result for the Christian Democratic Union party this month, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided against running for CDU leadership again in December. While that’s not the same as giving up her government post quite yet — she’s expected to confirm today that she won’t run again after 2021 — it’s the official signal that the Merkel era is ending and the succession race is open not just in the party but for the chancellorship, too.
Any successor is going to be sailing in stormy waters. The outcome of Sunday’s election in Hesse, the German state that includes the country’s financial capital Frankfurt, signaled that the political dispersion which has led to lengthy government formation talks and shaky cabinets in many European countries is the new norm in Germany, too.
In Hesse, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) achieved its worst result in 50 years (27 percent of the vote) and its federal coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), its worst result ever (19.8 percent). This probably won’t lead to any momentous changes in the state itself. For five years, Hesse was ruled by a coalition of the CDU and the Greens, with Merkel ally Volker Bouffier as minister president and Greens’ state leader Tarek Al-Wazir as his deputy and economics minister. This combination is the most likely one post-election, too; together, the CDU and the Greens, who surged to a record 19.8 percent result, hold 69 seats in the state parliament, the thinnest possible absolute majority. Other coalitions are only theoretically possible, and Bouffier and Al-Wazir are the most popular state politicians.
And yet it’s clear that the federal ruling coalition is unpopular, and Merkel couldn’t avoid political responsibility for the dismal performance recently of her party and its ally, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union. Governing one compromise at a time, hanging on because each election result is a drubbing but not a catastrophe has clearly lost its appeal for Merkel. Whether or not she blames herself for the CDU’s and the coalition’s troubles, she’s about to remove her personality as a factor in voters’ choice.
In 13 years of governing Germany (and 18 as CDU leader) there is, of course, a lot that Merkel has done wrong. She overpromised and underdelivered on environmental goals. She kept hoarding the government’s tax windfall long past the point where the budget was balanced rather than step up investment in infrastructure, especially digital infrastructure. In 2015 and 2016, she let in more than 1.2 million asylum seekers pretty much without any planning, overtaxing the German bureaucratic machine and police force and letting the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party ride the immigration issue into all the state parliaments, as well as the federal one.
Finally, since last year’s inconclusive election, she has focused too much on forming a workable coalition and then keeping it together amid constant squabbles, so Germans got the impression that no one was interested in governing. A majority, according to a recent poll, hold Merkel personally responsible for the government’s sorry state.
The growing demands for change, however, are not going to be satisfied with mere personnel moves, even such momentous ones as Merkel’s gradual easing out of power (she has said she believes in keeping party leadership and chancellorship in the same pair of hands). No successor, be it Merkel’s hand-picked CDU secretary general, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, conservative Health Minister Jens Spahn, harsh Merkel critic and former CDU faction head Friedrich Merz or any of the CDU’s successful state minister presidents, will have an easy time winning a broader popular mandate than Merkel when the traditional parties of the center-right and center-left are in institutional decline. The public knows what they can offer and finds it irritatingly boring.
The Social Democrats have some popular leaders — Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has the highest approval rating of all German politicians, and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz is in the top three — but if either of them led the party into an early election, he’d probably fail miserably. The party itself looks out of ideas. The CDU has a similar problem, no matter who wins the internal struggle.
A shift to the right, toward the anti-immigrant stance of the AfD, would do little for the party’s standing; in Bavaria, the CSU failed with that tactic, and both in Bavaria and in Hesse, the pro-immigrant Greens have done better than the nationalists. A shift to the left is something Merkel tried — and earned much resentment in the party ranks, speeding up the defection of some conservatives to the AfD.
What voters are looking for is new ideas, clear views, a focus on their day-to-day problems rather than inter- and intraparty strife. The Greens’ gains with their friendly, non-confrontational approachability point to one potential winning strategy, though it’s certainly easier to be friendly and non-confrontational when not in the hot seat. On the other hand, the AfD’s unapologetic nativism is clearly another way to win votes. The growing polarization and dispersion aren’t good for big parties in general, even with highly capable, talented leaders. That’s why the current crisis is hardly likely to lead to the emergence of larger-than-life, Merkel-like figures able to unite the country. The big-tent parties’ monopoly on power can hardly be saved; Germany’s immediate future appears to be somewhat like many other European countries’ — a shifting electoral landscape, unstable governments, attempts at trial and error that lead to deadlock.
That’s not bad in itself: Radical change never leads immediately to stable outcomes. It’s ironic, though, that Merkel, this century’s greatest master of compromise, is leaving behind a landscape in which compromises will be even more necessary than during her reign.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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