The end of the era of Angela Merkel, Europe’s most durable and influential leader, moved a big step closer on Monday when she agreed to step down as chair of the Christian Democratic Union party. Her decision came after poor showings in two regional elections, and opens the door wide for a leadership competition as the centrist German parties fight to keep their relevance in a highly fragmented political landscape.
Ms. Merkel, 64, who is in her fourth term as Chancellor, gave no indication that she would also step down as head of government, although in Germany, the roles of head of government and head of party almost always go together. On the contrary, she has said she fully intends to see out her term, which ends in 2021, and not seek a fifth term. But another three years now seems unlikely as the centre-right CDU and its centre-left coalition partner, the gravely wounded Social Democratic Party (SPD), shed popularity quickly at the national and regional levels.
The CDU and the SPD have been running the political show in Germany since the late 1940s, overseeing the country’s evolution from failed – and utterly destroyed – fascist state to modern, open democracy, global industrial power and perhaps the prime sponsor of the European integration project. Today, the two parties are losing great chunks of support to parties further to the left and, particularly, the right, even if they together still command the greatest share of the vote. But how long can that last as some of the world’s biggest economies, including the United States, Italy and, now, Brazil, lurch to the right, their supporters demanding that national interests come first?
Ms. Merkel’s decision to step down as party leader at the CDU convention in December was likely made after the CDU bled support in Sunday’s election in Hesse, the central state whose biggest city is Frankfurt, home of the European Central Bank.
According to preliminary results, the party slumped to 27 per cent. That was enough to give the CDU a win but was its worst showing since 1966 and a drop of 11 percentage points since Hesse’s last election, in 2013. The SPD’s share of the vote fell by a similar amount, with both the SPD and the resurgent Greens each taking about 19.2 per cent of the vote. The hard-right, xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) came in at just less than 13 per cent – triple the percentage of the vote it received four years ago. The AfD is no longer a fringe party; it is represented in all 16 state parliaments and is the biggest opposition party in the federal parliament.
Ms. Merkel’s hold on the CDU leadership might have survived if Hesse were the only election in which the party shed great chunks of votes. It wasn’t. In the Bavarian election two weeks ago, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, placed first but lost its absolute majority after its worst showing in six decades. The SPD, meanwhile, saw its support fall by half, to less than 10 per cent. The anti-establishment Greens, preaching social justice and environmental protection, were the big winners, doubling their share to 17.5 per cent.
The end of the long love affair with the CDU no doubt began in 2015 when Ms. Merkel welcomed a million migrants, most of them Syrians, as a humanitarian gesture. The backlash, especially in less prosperous Eastern Germany, was swift, giving rise to the AfD, which many Germans condemn as a neo-fascist party. Even though the German economy is strong, both coalition partners were punished in the September, 2017, federal election. Capturing only 33 per cent of the vote, Ms. Merkel’s CDU spent almost six months trying to cobble together a coalition, eventually resorting to the vastly diminished SPD to form a government.
It is the SPD that could accelerate Ms. Merkel’s demise as Chancellor. The relationship between the two coalition partners has been tense, with more than a few senior SPD politicians arguing that the party needs a term in opposition to renew itself. After a disastrous string of election results for the SPD, the calls within the party to break up the coalition will no doubt intensify when it meets with the CDU at a midterm review next year, although political earthquakes do not happen overnight in Germany.
Europeans are watching the upheaval in Berlin with glee, or horror. The anti-establishment parties, such as Italy’s far-right League, whose leader, Matteo Salvini, has emerged as the most powerful populist in Europe, will probably cheer the destabilization of Ms. Merkel, the champion of the European project that he so despises. Indeed, Ms. Merkel has been the main voice calling for pan-European unity as the nationalist forces rise across the continent, and Southern Europe, wary of Germany’s economic might and and demands for austerity, tries to shake off the lingering effects of the deep recessions after the 2008 financial crisis.
But the hundreds of millions of pro-Europeans will not cheer her waning political power. As the German political landscape fractures, the national forces within Germany and outside of it might become emboldened. The pro-European forces will dread the void she will leave behind, and that void may come soon.