Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party leader, gestures as she makes her keynote speech at the CDU party conference (Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

Merkel's Latest Election Drubbing Exposes Government's Fragility

(Bloomberg) -- Instability plaguing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fourth term was laid bare in the latest state election drubbing, with her coalition partner’s flagging support posing a growing threat to her government.

The Social Democrats, which reluctantly allied with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in March, flirted with leaving the coalition after garnering the worst result in Frankfurt’s home state of Hesse since World War II. That extends the decline of Germany’s oldest political party, which has fallen behind the Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany in some national polls.

“For both CDU and SPD, the coming weeks will be dramatic after the losses,” said Ulrich Sarcinelli, a political scientist at the University of Koblenz-Landau. “The internal debates within the CDU will become more contentious.”

While Merkel’s party slumped on Sunday to its worst showing in the state in more than 50 years, the CDU-led state government with the Greens is likely to hang on, though projections suggest it may need an additional partner such as the Free Democrats. None of that resolves the questions eating away at Merkel’s standing in what is widely expected to be her last term.

CDU Convention

With Merkel set to address the results on Monday, the ballot opens a six-week stretch ahead of the CDU’s national convention that will show whether she can restore her authority over the government or more unsettled times are ahead. CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Merkel protegee, said the chancellor will run again for party leadership.

Sunday’s election underscored how Merkel, 64, is walking a tightrope between critics in her party bloc and an SPD divided between leaders who favor staying in government and rank-and-file members longing to regroup in opposition.

“The condition of the government is not acceptable,” SPD head Andrea Nahles told reporters as projections came in. The government needs a short-term policy road map and its implementation will determine whether the coalition still is “the right place for us,” she said.

Lost Votes

2018 2013 ResultChange

The election “continues the trend of structural change where the traditional parties, which have failed to renew themselves, lose,” Famke Krumbmueller, a partner at political-risk consultancy OpenCitiz. “The political landscape is fracturing as a result.”

Amid public dissatisfaction with the federal government and a similar drubbing for the governing parties in Bavaria two weeks ago, the Hesse vote could further inflame speculation about the national coalition’s staying power as talk about options in a post-Merkel era swirl in Berlin.

Declining support for Germany’s old-line parties and Merkel’s political vulnerability after the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016 dogged her in Hesse. Meanwhile, the SPD is struggling to revive its fortunes after years of governing in Merkel’s shadow.

Helge Braun, Merkel’s chief of staff in the chancellery, blamed months of bickering among the governing parties, known as the “grand coalition,” for the CDU’s decline.

“The fights of the last few weeks certainly didn’t help us in Hesse,” he told broadcaster ARD. “The grand coalition will now pull together and show that we can solve the problems that people care about.”

No ‘Humiliation’

Last week, Merkel in effect threw open the race for her successor. For the first time, she rattled off names of possible contenders to take over the CDU, which she’s led for 18 years.

Merkel “might get away with” the result in Hesse, said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg.

“It’s not quite the humiliation that would have encouraged some of the potential successor to come out of the woodwork,” he said by phone. “She’s probably safe until the end of this year.”

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