Germany’s Shrinking Political Center

(The Bloomberg View) -- After 13 years in power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains Europe’s indispensable leader. Increasingly, however, German voters feel she is no longer required. Domestic support for Merkel’s brand of centrism is collapsing. This puts the stability of Europe as a whole at risk.

On Sunday, voters in Germany’s largest state, Bavaria, delivered a rebuke to Merkel’s coalition partners, the conservative Christian Social Union — the Bavarian sister party to her Christian Democratic Union — and the center-left Social Democratic Party. Support for the CSU fell below 40 percent for the first time since the 1950s, and the SPD was crushed, winning less than 10 percent of the vote. The main beneficiaries were the far-right Alternative for Germany and the liberal Greens, now the second-biggest party in Bavaria’s parliament.   

The results have weakened Merkel’s already-fragile government. Many of her allies are still furious about her 2015 decision to accept 1 million refugees from the Middle East. Last month, CDU and CSU lawmakersousted Volker Kauder, the center-right bloc’s leader in parliament and Merkel’s most trusted lieutenant, and installed a more conservative fiscal hawk in his place.

The CSU, meanwhile, moved to the right and threatened to bolt the government if Merkel failed to curb immigration. This summer, after the country’s domestic intelligence chief sparked outrage by downplaying neo-Nazi violence, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CSU, responded by giving the official a promotion. The tactic didn’t work: Support for the AfD rose and moderates migrated to the Greens.

There may be worse to come. Merkel’s party could suffer another setback on Oct. 28, when voters go to the polls in the state of Hesse, which the CDU has largely dominated for two decades.

Merkel’s term runs until 2021, and she doesn’t yet face a serious leadership challenge. The country’s economy remains robust. But German politics is fragmenting, with parties on the right and left gaining strength at the expense of a center that has controlled national politics for years. Merkel will struggle to hold her coalition together, let alone govern effectively. And a diminished chancellor preoccupied with internal turmoil bodes ill for the West, with liberal democracy in retreat worldwide and the European Union challenged by an erratic American partner and rising right-wing populism in Italy, Hungary and Poland, as well as in Germany itself.

To restore a measure of confidence in her leadership, Merkel needs to act more decisively in several areas. First, she ought to finally lay out a detailed plan for reform of the EU’s migration system, which should include a common policy on refugees and more resources for both securing the EU’s external borders and integrating migrants into their new societies. Second, she should embrace proposals to create a German green-card system to attract skilled immigrants from outside Europe. And third, with the government running a record surplus, Merkel should borrow freely from the Greens’ successful electoral program and push for investments in digital infrastructure, health care and affordable housing.

Equally important, Merkel ought to groom future leaders who can sustain her legacy while recognizing the country’s hunger for change. That means giving prospective successors room to take risks. Merkel’s elevation of a possible successor who has differed with her on immigration policies is encouraging.

It’s to be hoped she can stop the rot. A divided, leaderless government in Berlin is the last thing Germany, or Europe, needs.  

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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