Steadfast Merkel, even on the way out

Andrea Römmele and Nils Napierala assess the damage to German parties after state election upsets.

The much-anticipated shake-up in federal politics did not materialise after a massive upset in mid-October for Germany’s nationally governing parties in Bavarian state elections.  Politics instead came to a standstill, with those in power hoping to stifle any contagion of national political quarrels for the next state election in Hesse. But on Sunday voters again served up a sharp rebuke.

The campaign politicking will ease for now, but European Parliament elections and Bremen state elections loom in the spring. In between, politicians will have a brief chance to reposition themselves and (hopefully) regain lost confidence. But things are moving fast.

Hessians serve up a sharp rebuke

All three party leaders of the grand coalition (Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD)) are under enormous pressure after massive losses in Hesse and Bavaria. Resistance to Merkel was already palpable in September when the party elected relative outsider Ralph Brinkhaus as CDU/CSU parliamentary group leader, rejecting Merkel’s close ally Volker Kauder.

At the same time, the long-time head of the Bavarian CSU, Horst Seehofer, is being blamed internally for the party’s poor showing in Bavaria, while SPD chairwoman Andrea Nahles has neglected to foster her party’s renewal as promised after the last federal election. Chancellor Merkel has been the first to face the consequences of the electorate’s strong dismissal.

Despite her longstanding view that the party chairmanship and chancellorship should be united in one person, Merkel announced after the Hesse vote that she would no longer run for party chairmanship in December. This was the starting signal for an upcoming hot phase of personnel realignment. Rather than a sign of political fatigue, Merkel’s move instead underlines her commitment to fulfilling her mandate as Chancellor in this legislative period. She accepts the circumstances and is now adapting to them. For her, resignation is not an empty threat, but a well-considered step taken with confidence.

Merkel's chancellorship and the German party system are on the line

Angela Merkel's renunciation of the party leadership sends a clear signal to the party, voters and coalition partners that she has understood the message. The turmoil associated with a candidacy would have been more harmful to her chancellorship than the loss of the party leadership. According to her press statement, Merkel had already made this decision at the beginning of the summer break. Yet few seemed aware of this: just a few days ago even the CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer categorically excluded Merkel's withdrawal  as party chief.

Merkel evidently now wants to make clear that she was by no means driven out of office and that her decision was a conscious one - that she clearly still holds the sceptre in her hand. She did not want to resign, but the choice was hers.  She thus shows an ability few political leaders can claim: maintaining political stature even when you are on the way out. This is also a rebuff to the far-right AfD, which has siphoned votes from traditional conservative parties, although they still are selling her withdrawal as their own victory.

Seehofer, Nahles and Co under increasing pressure

But what does Merkel's withdrawal mean for the other governing parties? She herself described this "break" as an "opportunity for all democratic parties" and in particular Germany’s "big-tent parties" – traditionally the CDU/CSU and the SPD. This sends a clear signal to party leaders Horst Seehofer (CSU) and Andrea Nahles (SPD).

Both are battling tremendous opposition from within their own parties. Seehofer provoked a dangerous dispute this summer that brought the coalition and the CDU/CSU Union to the brink of collapse. His resignation was actually expected first. Should he remain party leader and Merkel resign, it would be a stunning feat of stubbornness. Not least because Seehofer has already threatened to resign several times, only to back away. Merkel’s move makes a much better impression. Her withdrawal will put more pressure on Seehofer.

Andrea Nahles' critics are also jumping on the bandwagon. Grand coalition detractor and head of the JuSos (the young wing of the SPD) Kevin Kühnert has already demanded that the next party convention be pulled forward and that the SPD leadership be put to a vote.  For Nahles, it is essential to make the grand coalition work if she want to retain the party leadership. But continuing the current governing coalition depends much on the next CDU chairman.

An arch-conservative like Jens Spahn or Friedrich Merz, both of whom have said they will run, would mean the end of this government. Not only because they might claim the chancellorship, but also because it would be impossible to convince the SPD base to govern with such a CDU.

Did Merkel's plan work? Only time will tell

The next few weeks will show whether Angela Merkel's strategy is successful. If she succeeds in bringing peace to the Union and thereby stabilising the government, it will have worked. If it does not work, the new CDU party leader will demand the chancellorship, or the SPD will resign the government. Then Germany will be heading for new elections.

The opposition is preparing for this. While the Greens can sit back and relax with the latest election results, the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Left Party (Die Linke) are joining in the "Merkel muss weg" (Merkel has to go) slogan of the AfD.

The Chancellor has taken a big risk to bring her political career to an end in a moderately structured manner. The outcome is open. But once again Angela Merkel has demonstrated her particular sense of political responsibility. By putting aside personal vanity, she is making an attempt to end the chaos in the current government coalition. She accepts the voters’ message that they are tired of the constant bickering in Berlin. Whether others will take the necessary steps as well remains to be seen.

Andrea Römmele is Dean of Executive Education and Professor for Communication in Politics and Civil Society at the Hertie School of Governance.

Nils Napierala is a Research Associate at the Hertie School.

Read Römmele's comments on the recent elections and what they mean for German politics in the media here:

El Pais 4 Nov 2018

The Guardian 29 Oct 2018

The Financial Times 29 Oct 2018




More about the authors

  • Andrea Römmele, Dean of Executive Education and Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society