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Angela Merkel’s Last Hurrah?

U.S. President Obama Meets With Angela Merkel
U.S. President Obama Meets With Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pictured during a news conference held with US President Barack Obama (not in the picture) at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany on November 17, 2016. President Obama is on his final visit to Europe as President and will stay in Berlin till tomorrow, where a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Fracois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is planned in the morning. (Photo by Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Ronald J. Granieri*

All political careers end in failure. This observation, attributed to former British Politian Enoch Powell, expresses a universal truth. Unless a political leader is smart enough to step out of the arena before things begin to go bad, or (to use the example of American presidents) is forced by constitutional rules to step down at a fixed moment, chances are good that the last act of any political career will end on a downbeat note. It’s hard to know when to leave, after all. No one wants to quit while at the pinnacle of power. Successful politicians are also too often tempted to believe that any downturn is temporary, and will stay the course in order to turn it around until it’s too late. Even the most successful politician will be tempted to ignore intimations that the closing approaches, no matter how loud the approaching sounds of “time’s winged chariot.”

Those basic laws of political gravity even apply to the woman whom the Economist celebrated in 2015 as the “indispensable European,” the same year that Time named her Person of the Year. Germany’s Angela Merkel, the first woman ever to hold the office of Chancellor, and currently the third-longest serving Chancellor in postwar German history, is facing an increasingly hostile political climate. Merkel’s once-unassailable position at the head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is under attack by conservative critics within her party and its Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union (CSU), as well as partisan critics of the right and left who blame her for current crises plaguing both Germany and Europe as a whole.

Although a specific date for next national elections has not been set, according to German electoral law voting will take place sometime in the early autumn of 2017. Thus Merkel has less than a year to win over doubters, and to see whether her policy prescriptions will bear fruit in time to reverse a negative trend in public opinion.

The Limits of Calm Crisis Management

That Merkel is facing the possible end of her remarkable political career at this moment of crisis is ironic, since the strongest criticisms of her are rooted in the same qualities for which she has been celebrated. Merkel’s hallmark has been steady, competent, unspectacular management, and her willingness to watch and wait rather than take precipitate action. Her style is as functional as her much-discussed and often-parodied pant suits. Her quiet and careful approach had helped her emerge unscathed from the political and moral rubble of East Germany and begin a surprising political rise. As more ambitious and telegenic rivals flamed out, she persevered. When the opportunity emerged to lead the CDU/CSU into government in 2005 after seven years in opposition, she seized the opportunity, even enduring a contemptuous rant from outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on election night 2005 to build a coalition with Schröder’s party, the Social Democrats (SPD).

Those skills served her well on her rise, and served her even better during most of the tumultuous decade in power. As the head of sometimes unruly coalition governments, Merkel has led Germany out of economic malaise, and acted as the most visible representative of the European Union as it has managed the Greek debt crisis and the weaknesses of the Euro. Her firm but undramatic criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine, especially the annexation of Crimea, drawing on her Russian language skills as well as Germany’s crucial economic role in the region, made her the leader of the European response. Most dramatically of all for this relentlessly undramatic politician, Merkel surprised the world when she announced in September 2015 in response to the images of desperate refugees braving leaky boats and overcrowded camps to escape the chaos of the Middle East that Germany would take as many of them as could make the journey. When challenged that the hundreds of thousands of migrants would overwhelm German capacities, her simple response became a mantra that summed up her approach to many knotty problems: “Wir schaffen das.” [“We can do it.”]

Time’s selection of Merkel as its Person of the Year last December was a rare triumph of substance over style in contemporary politics. Many betting people in the Autumn of 2015 anticipated the title going to one of the many terror groups and individuals who threatened the American way of life at the time, such as ISIS or Donald Trump. Instead, Time went with one of the least flamboyant characters on the world political scene, someone famous precisely for avoiding either personal glamor or political fireworks. Nor was Time stingy with its praise, calling Merkel “Chancellor of the Free World.” Her leadership in dealing with situations as diverse as the Euro, Ukraine, and migrants attested to the breadth of her skills and the value of her pragmatic focus on crisis management.

Yet cracks began to emerge in this image while those issues of Time were still on newsstands. Although the deals she brokered in the summer of 2015 had temporarily defused the Euro crisis and saved Greek membership in the EU, critics continued to worry about the long-term future and of the stability of a Union that required such constant remedial action from its richest member—not to mention the simmering resentment of neighbors still uncomfortable with the idea of a Europe dominated by Germany. Merkel’s efforts to broker a peace in Ukraine also stalled, with German and other European businessmen worrying that sanctions on Russia would hurt their economic prospects and others concerned that too much firmness over an area vital to Russia but peripheral to Western Europe would provoke an unnecessary and destructive war. Merkel has managed to hold the solid western front together, and emphasize solidarity with the eastern members of both the EU and NATO. Nevertheless, a combination of economic interests and historic German reluctance to embrace military demonstrations have fed a steady stream of statements from those who wonder whether German interests would be better served by seeking an accommodation with Vladimir Putin in the name of restoring peace and regional stability.

Most damaging of all has been the very strong domestic backlash against Merkel’s open door policy for refugees. Simmering concerns in smaller towns about the influx of unfamiliar faces boiled over after reports of a wave of sexual assaults and other crimes by young migrant men in German cities such as Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Stories of local officials struggling to find suitable housing and other services, and protest marches from anti-immigrant groups such as the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West—better known by its German acronym PEGIDA—undermined Merkel’s calls for calm. Many Germans are not only wondering whether they “can do it,” they are openly asking whether they want to do it at all.

The EU and Ukraine continue to challenge Merkel’s leadership. The British vote for “Brexit” from the EU in particular has turned the focus to her as the de facto leader of European negotiations, and Merkel has tried to balance her desire to hold the EU together with an equal desire to avoid creating further controversy in relations with London. In the last few months, Merkel has actually enjoyed some success with her migrant policy. A compromise deal with Turkey has significantly reduced the flow of migrants, from more than 800,000 last year to barely a quarter of that this year, with the coming of winter promising to reduce the numbers further. Merkel has also tried to mollify restive voters and colleagues by collaborating on new laws to control migration and tighten enforcement actions against criminal activity. But for many German voters, the damage has already been done. Merkel’s CDU has suffered embarrassing losses in recent elections in the German states (Länder) such as Berlin and even her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Although her personal popularity ratings have recovered somewhat, they are still below the stratospheric levels she enjoyed in 2015.

A Changing Political Landscape

Merkel’s challenges also stem from significant changes within the German party landscape. For the first three decades of the Federal Republic, the two major party blocs—CDU/CSU and SPD could expect to receive more than 80% of the total vote. Thus while Germany was a parliamentary system, governments were usually very stable, with either the CDU/CSU or SPD usually leading a coalition with the small liberal party the Free Democrats (FDP), who tilted more to the right or to the left depending on their choice of partner. The emergence of the Greens added another party to the national mix in 1983, but they did not enter a national coalition until 1998, when they joined with the SPD in the first Red-Green government. Reunification added another party, as the former Socialist Unity Party that governed East Germany first reinvented itself as the Party of democratic socialism (PDS), and then merged with dissident Social Democrats to create Die Linke (the Left). Die Linke has its base largely in the former East Germany, where it has styled itself the protector of those dissatisfied with reunification and critical of the new political order. Consistently earning nearly a quarter of the votes in the eastern states, it has been a major player in multiple state governments there.

The emergence of these new parties over the last two decades has hastened the fragmentation of the German electorate. The total vote shared by CDU/CSU and SPD has declined sharply, with recent polls suggesting that they together may win less than 60% of the vote in 2017. Thus what had been a stable system with two major parties governing in coalition with a smaller partner is now a less predictable five-party system, where the only viable options appear to be three-party coalitions or a broad-based “Grand Coalition” of CDU/CSU and SPD.

Grand Coalitions are not uncommon in European parliamentary systems. Indeed, some counties, such as Austria, have been governed by such coalitions for decades, with the only variation being in which of the two major parties selected the chief executive. They offer the appearance of stability, and the chance of a broad-based approach to dealing with crises. At the same time, however, Grand Coalitions also mean that the government parties dominate parliament, leaving no substantial constructive role for a parliamentary opposition, thus encouraging the emergence of parties and movements on the fringes. Such an arrangement stifles parliamentary debate, and also encourages squabbling among the government parties, as each jockeys for positon and attempts to assert its independent profile.

In the first six decades of the postwar Federal Republic (both as West Germany and reunited Germany after 1990), the only Grand Coalition had lasted from 1966 to 1969. That government dealt successfully with economic crisis and constitutional reform. But the response from the public, especially from young people, was to recoil from the existence of such a “power cartel,” which nourished increased activity on the political extremes. This was the era of street protests from radical students in the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition, and also the temporary rise of the Crypto-Nazi National Democratic Party, who charged that the two main parties had become so similar that they were a necessary corrective. Party leaders and other experts, who had initially welcomed the Grand Coalition as a sensible reflection of broad political consensus, now worried that a long-term coalition would undermine faith in the republican order. Thus after elections in 1969 led to a government of the SPD and FDP, Germans in all parties breathed easier, and agreed that Grand Coalitions should be short-term options and not a long term habit.

Over the past decade, however, Grand Coalitions have been the rule, not the exception. In 2005, Merkel hoped for a center-right coalition with the FDP, but the results made a coalition with the SPD necessary. After re-election in 2009 she was able to form her preferred coalition with the FDP, but internal squabbles and the collapse of the FDP meant that in 2013 she had to return a partnership with the SPD. Current polling further suggests that a Grand Coalition may be the only possible option for her to stay in office after 2017 as well.

Whatever success Merkel’s governments have had, the experience of having the two largest parties locked in a forced marriage has weakened both of them. The SPD has been hit hard, its share of the national electorate plummeting below 25% as the Greens and Linke attract left-wing voters who think that the Social Democrats have become too tied to the establishment. The persistent poor showings of the SPD have led some in the party leadership, especially party chair Sigmar Gabriel, to speculate about a possible left-wing coalition after the 2017 elections, which would link the SPD to the Greens and the Linke. Such a coalition may be mathematically possible, though it is unclear whether doctrinal and personal differences among the three parties would lead to a stable long-term option.

Merkel’s CDU/CSU has only fared marginally better than their Social Democratic rivals. Merkel’s centrism has earned her praise from the media and broad spectrum of voters, but conservative Christian Democrats grumble about the loss of party identity. The Bavarian CSU, which routinely wins absolute majorities in its home state and styles itself the voice of modern conservatism, has been especially critical. Its Chairman, Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer, has gone out of his way to attack Merkel on both the migrant question and on the EU, even resuscitating old plans for the CSU to turn itself into a national conservative party. Meanwhile, despite its efforts to appeal to the broad political center, the CDU has suffered a series of state election defeats, its share of the electorate in national polls dipping into the low thirties, a level not seen since the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949.

Worst of all for the CDU/CSU, which has prided itself on its combined ability to integrate conservative voters and hinder the growth of any permanent rival to its right, the last few years have seen the emergence of a new national right-wing party. Initially formed to criticize Merkel’s policies toward the European Union—especially the German willingness to bail out the profligate Greeks and prop up the Euro—the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has developed into an increasingly strident nationalist/populist party. Modeling itself on the French Front National and the United Kingdom Independence Party, the AfD is now not only Euroskeptic, but has also given voice to anti-immigrant sentiments. Drawing on the same spirit and many of the same leaders as PEGIDA, the AfD has appealed directly to voters in small towns (especially in the east) who feel that the establishment, aided and abetted by the “lying press” [Lügenpresse] has been disregarding their concerns. The AfD barely missed entering the Bundestag in 2013, falling just short of the 5% of the electorate necessary to gain entry. Since then, however, they have had a series of strong state elections, most recently coming in second to the SPD in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, nudging past the CDU in Merkel’s home state.

Current national polls have the AfD consistently in the comfortable double digits. Although the CDU/CSU leadership has ruled out including the AfD in any coalition, if they continue to lose that many votes to the populist upstarts it will be very difficult indeed for Merkel and her party to stay in power. Such worries feed an ongoing strategic debate within the CDU/CSU over whether it is better to adopt positions on controversial issues that are more like those of the AfD, in order to win back wayward conservatives, or to attack the AfD more vigorously in hopes of limiting its appeal. How Merkel manages that internal debate will determine whether she is able to hold onto her position in the year to come.

Global Significance

Merkel’s fate is of interest to many outside of Germany, and has global significance. As the encomia from Time and the Economist and elsewhere have shown, Merkel’s international prestige stems from her role as a voice for principled moderation in Europe and beyond. In an era where the other major Eurpean states—such as France, Italy, and especially post-Brexit Great Britain—are turning inward in response to political and economic doldrums, and populist parties threaten to overturn political traditions in states from Poland and Hungary to Austria, Spain, and Greece, Merkel’s undramatic style and unwavering commitment to institutions such as the EU and NATO appear more valuable than ever. A future German government that called either of them into question would remove the last remaining European keystone for the current international order, with incalculable consequences for the edifice as a whole.

At present, all of the alternatives to Merkel threaten both of those institutions. Both of the surging parties on the political right and left—die Linke and the AfD—have expressed their disdain for NATO and the EU. The AfD earns more headlines with its anti-immigrant positions, and has gained more momentum thanks to the surge in populism across the Continent as well as the UK’s vote for Brexit. More worryingly from the perspective of many of Germany’s allies is the AfD’s expressed sympathy for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Echoing many other populist parties that praise Putin’s nationalism and his rejection of western social mores on issues such as LGBTQ rights, the AfD extols Putin as a model leader and denounces NATO for “saber-rattling” over Ukraine, while also rejecting the EU for undermining German national identity and interests. Die Linke downplays the cultural element in its effort to appeal to western progressives, but embraces a traditional leftist hostility to NATO and sympathy for Russia, and attacks the EU as a corrupt capitalist cartel that has imposed austerity on defenseless Greeks and other Europeans. In a recent poll of German voters, two political parties had more than 30% of respondents who said they trusted Vladimir Putin more than Angela Merkel—the AfD and die Linke. Both the AfD and die Linke also agree on a generalized anti-Americanism, blaming the United States for many world problems and dreaming of a Germany detached from the American-led international order.

Although it is unlikely that the AfD would be part of any national government in 2017, their role as a spoiler, taking conservative votes away from the CDU/CSU, cannot be underestimated, especially if it makes Merkel unable to form a viable coalition. The AfD’s continued popularity in upcoming state elections will also add fuel to the ongoing debates within the CDU/CSU about political strategy and future leadership, and perhaps embolden Merkel’s internal critics to force her to change course or depart the political stage altogether. It has already led Merkel to inch away from her open-door approach to migrants. Further attacks on her popularity are likely to weaken the German position in Brexit negotiations, and could also lead to a more conciliatory approach to Russia, not only over Ukraine, but over Russian actions in Syria.

Any moves toward creating a left-wing coalition would also point in this direction, as some SPD leaders, especially Sigmar Gabriel but even moderate foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have echoed criticisms from die Linke about Merkel’s support for NATO’s harder line on Russia. Ironically, the Greens, whose origins lie in deep criticism of NATO policy in the 1970s and 1980s, may end up being the stumbling block to such a coalition, as they have consistently supported Merkel’s approach to Russia.

Critics of Russian policy have noted that Moscow’s military actions in Syria have fed the refugee flow to Europe that has undermined so many governments and weakened the EU. Even if that was not his conscious strategy, Vladimir Putin must be pleased by the indirect results of his efforts to prop up his ally Bashir al-Assad. A weakened United States and an enervated EU would offer little opposition to the accomplishment of his further goals in the region. Unless Merkel is able to reassert her popularity, or help with the rise of a successor who will carry on in her spirit, the future looks quite bleak for any efforts to advance western interests.

Last Call?

Even if she manages to survive the next election, Merkel still faces the basic problem that any democratic leader who has managed to stay on top for more than a decade eventually must face. The public will grow tired; the colleagues grow restless. Ironically, this is something of a tradition in German politics, especially within Merkel’s CDU. The first Chancellor of the Federal Republic, and one of the founders of the CDU, Konrad Adenauer, served fourteen mostly successful years in office, winning four national elections. But after a landslide victory in 1957, in which the CDU earned more than half of all votes cast (still a record in the history of German democracy), Adenauer’s last years in office were marked by interparty squabbles and political frustration. The CDU lost its absolute majority in the 1961 elections (which were overshadowed by the building of the Berlin Wall), and Adenauer alienated many members of his party by trying to undermine the man many imagined would be his natural successor, Ludwig Erhard. By the time Adenauer retired in October 1963, he had so weakened Erhard that he only lasted three years in office, and the CDU itself ended up in the opposition by 1969.

More poignantly, Merkel’s mentor Helmut Kohl, riding high in 1990 after reunification, barely managed to squeak back into office in 1994, and promised he would retire before the next election in favor of his heir apparent, Wolfgang Schäuble. But as time passed, Kohl convinced himself that he was indispensable. Aiming to surpass Adenauer’s record of fourteen years in office, Kohl stayed on through the entire term and ended up leading the CDU/CSU to a decisive electoral defeat in 1998. That defeat, combined with revelations about fundraising irregularities that emerged after he left office, darkened Kohl’s reputation and threatened to diminish his historical standing. In the years since, his health has deteriorated but his reputation has recovered, but observers continue to agree that he stayed in office longer than he should have, and weakened his potential successors.

Merkel owes quite a bit to Kohl. When the Chancellor of Unity sought an East German politician to help represent the reunification of the party and the willingness of the CDU to be open to easterners, Merkel emerged as a competent if unspectacular choice. When Kohl’s financing scandals in 1999-2000 took down several other party leaders including Schäuble, Merkel emerged as the white knight (so to speak) who could rebuild the party.

Their relationship has cooled considerably over the years, but Merkel does not deny that she learned a lot from her former patron. One hopes that she will also learn from his historical example, to succeed where he did not in managing her eventual retirement and the succession in CDU leadership. How Angela Merkel handles that challenge should occupy the attention not only of the Germans, but of Germany’s partners and rivals as well. As Angela Merkel rehearses for her last acts upon the international stage, the whole world is watching.

*Ronald J. Granieri is Executive Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of America and the West, editor of FPRI’s The American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull, and host of Geopolitics with Granieri, a monthly discussion program at FPRI.

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