Merkel: A career coming to an end?

November 16, 2018

 "Merkel muss weg!” (Merkel must go!)

Previously a battle cry of the far right and far left groups on the German political spectrum, the growing consensus behind this slogan is slowly turning into a serious issue for Angela Merkel and for her credibility as Germany’s chancellor. There is no question that her position is becoming increasingly weaker, but why? Here we will look at all of the most important factors over the last two years that have had an increasingly adverse effect on Chancellor Merkel.

The first concrete evidence for this was seen in the results of the 2017 federal parliament election. The electoral support Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) collapsed to 32.9% of the vote, down significantly from 41.5% in 2013. One can speculate as to the full list of reasons for this, but the dramatic rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is a key explanatory factor. For the first time, the AfD was elected to the federal parliament with 12.6% of the vote and 94 seats, with many former CDU voters flocking to the AfD as a result of their perception of Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis. 

The aftermath of this election, namely the almost six months of negotiations required to form a coalition government with a sufficient parliamentary majority, also proved debilitating to Merkel’s leadership. Initial plans for a coalition between the CDU and its Bavarian sister-party the CSU, the liberal FDP and the Greens had to be scrapped, as the FDP under its leader Christian Lindner pulled out of the negotiations, citing a complete lack of willingness to compromise of the part of Merkel and her party. Merkel’s credibility was severely damaged by this as, in order to remain as Chancellor, she effectively had no choice but to once again form a so-called “Grand Coaltion” with the Social Democrats.

Recent state parliament elections have also served to negatively affect the strength of Merkel’s chancellorship, with yet more collapses in support for the CDU. A key example of this can be found in examination of the parliamentary election in the state of Hessen, held on the 28thOctober this year, where the CDU’s electoral support plummeted to 27.0% and 40 seats compared to 38.3% and 47 seats in 2013. A second important factor to note in this particular election is the rise in the Greens’ electoral support from 11.1% and 14 seats in 2013 to 19.8% and 29 seats in 2018. This is further evidence that an increasing lack of support for the CDU is proving detrimental to Merkel’s credibility as, by increasing electoral support for the Greens, voters in Hessen demonstrated that a much clearer ideologically alternative presence was needed in the state parliament to counteract the plurality of seats held by Merkel’s CDU.

A further key factor undermining Merkel as Chancellor is her current interior minister, and former first minister of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer. In his time as Bavarian first minister, Seehofer had proven to be somewhat of a thorn in Merkel’s side due to public spats over policy and Bavaria’s powers over legislation. Just one day after the current grand coalition was formed and Seehofer joined Merkel’s cabinet, he made the outrageous statement that “Islam does not belong in Germany”. In the aftermath of this remark, Merkel simply missed the opportunity to sack Seehofer from his cabinet position. As a result of this and Seehofer’s comments, in the eyes of the press and Merkel’s political opponents, it became increasingly difficult to fully separate Seehofer’s views on Islam with those of the rest of Merkel’s government and the chancellor herself, proving irreparably damaging to her credibility.

Merkel’s increasingly weak position as Chancellor culminated in her announcement on October 29ththat, as of December, she would be stepping down from here role as chairwoman of the CDU, whilst remaining as Chancellor until the next federal parliament election in 2021. Her leadership is now weak to the extent that not only is her position nominally weaker, but that an opponent from within the CDU could very well become the next party chairman, presiding over Merkel for the rest of her already precarious chancellorship. 

The frontrunner in the election to succeed Merkel as the CDU’s chairman is Friedrich Merz. Merz’s rivalry with Merkel began in the aftermath of the 2002 federal parliamentary election. Having been the leader of the CDU’s federal parliament group since 2000, then CDU chairwoman Merkel claimed Merz’s position for herself after the 2002 election, with Merz being elected as the party’s deputy head of the parliamentary party group. Merz resigned from this post in 2004 and retired as a member of the federal parliament in 2009, citing differences within the CDU as his reason for doing so. Now returning to the fold as a candidate leaning more towards the CDU’s conservative wing, it is not only highly likely that Merz will be elected as CDU chairman in December, but that Merkel’s time as chancellor could very well be curtailed. Fellow candidate for the party’s chairmanship Jens Spahn is also seen as more conservative than centrist. If Merz wins and he is able to ally himself with Spahn, Merkel could very well be ousted as Chancellor before the end of her term in 2021, possibly within a year.

Given that Merkel’s best and perhaps only hope of remaining as Chancellor is that her ally and current CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer becomes chairwoman of the party, it is clear that Merkel chancellorship is on thin ice. Given that the election for party chairman has not yet occurred, one can only speculate as to the true outcome and what it means for Merkel’s leadership. However, given that the above factors have chipped away at her strength and credibility as Chancellor over the last two to three years, it is therefore the case that Merkel’s position is as weak as it has ever been and that her odds of serving out the rest of her term are looking ever more unlikely.

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