Merkel’s magic has worn off. In stepping down as leader of her party, Merkel has admitted that she does not have the answers to their problems. Her recent poor performances in the CDU/CSU state elections were the last straw. In truth, Merkel’s party has been struggling for much longer. Despite winning the Federal election in 2017, the party saw a near 10% drop in its share in the vote from the previous election. This crisis for the German political establishment is not limited to Merkel or the CDU, however. The SPD are in even worse shape: being reduced to the fifth position in Bavaria suggests the affliction may be terminal.
To the casual observer this crisis might seem unusual as it appears exclusively political. Germany’s economy is in great shape, with unemployment having fallen in October to just 3.3%, the lowest recorded level since the country’s reunification. Yet, underlying these attention-grabbing statistics is a more worrying picture of the German economy, one where inequality continues to grow, and the relative poverty rate remains stubbornly high. The divide between those who have shared in Germany’s economic success and those who have not has clearly contributed to this political crisis. The AfD has grown most rapidly in the East of the country, the region from which Merkel hails, and which suffers disproportionately from unemployment and poverty. The narrative of a successful Germany is gained from comparisons between Germany and its neighbours; it is not something that one is likely to hear on the average German street.
This all begs the question of what exactly Merkel’s successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), intends to do. As the leader of the party, and (probably) Merkel’s preferred candidate for the role, it could be assumed that continuity is the likely outcome, and perhaps such a strategy could be successful. Indeed, under AKK’s leadership, the CDU made substantial electoral gains of around 5% in the Saarland last year, but it should be remembered the Saarland is just one state and not a representative one at that. There is reason to believe that AKK will have the foresight to pursue changes at the national level: her campaign was branded a ‘listening tour’. She will be aware that the CDU lost more votes to the AfD than any other party in 2017, and that the current Grand Coalition with the SPD is likely to be the last that can produce a majority in the Bundestag. The Green Party is now polling in last place out of the main six parties, but in October polled higher, at second place, than the CDU (without its Bavarian sister party, the CSU), in fourth. The threat of the AfD to the CDU is well known, recently being voted the second most popular party in the country, but it could be that the Green Party will present the greater challenge when Germans go to the polls. The average Green voter more closely resembles the average CDU voter in terms of education and income than the average AfD voter which has recently seen an increase in voters with lower levels of education. For AKK, then, the choice is to move the party to the right to attract the roughly 1 million voters who have left the CDU for the AfD, or to move to the centre, to avoid losing core voters to the Greens.
Merkel’s stated intention to stay on until 2021 could well be a bluff, an attempt to buy time, to slow the time until succession to give her successor the best possible chance. It’s no secret that the CDU/CSU coalition has been tested: the tensions, particularly surrounding policies towards refugees, between Merkel and Horst Seehofer, her Bavarian counterpart, have been one aspect of this, but Merkel’s departure alone will not solve this. The issue is that the CSU have favoured a move to the right to counter the AfD, and while the state election suggests this wasn’t entirely successful, the party is unlikely to swing back to the centre. AKK’s personal social conservatism may help patch things up between the two parties, but it might not solve the issue of which strategy will strengthen the CDU. If Merkel refuses to say ‘auf wiedersehen’- and her knack for political survival means this is likely- then tensions may well emerge between her and AKK during the cohabitation period. Potentially even more damaging is the prospect that AKK simply becomes a Merkel legacy project and loses credibility as an independent successor.
There are many possibilities for Germany at this point. For the decision makers who will decide which becomes a reality there are no easy choices: Merkel has to decide whether her position as Chancellor is tenable; AKK must decide a direction for her party, and her country, without having the immediate power to enact it; And finally, the German people must decide what they want, and whether the CDU will be able to provide it, whoever leads them.