Yogi Bera – that immortal American philosopher – once said that it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future. Well, here is one prediction. A year from now, Angela Merkel will be approaching the closing days of her election campaign, if she chooses to enter it in 2017. And she will win that election for the fourth time, a feat no other Chancellor has matched besides Helmut Kohl. She will also form a coalition government as she has done three times before by necessity. Whether that will again with the Social Democrats or whether she will forge another majority, say, with the Greens, depends on the numbers and the ability to find common platform ground. But the prediction is that Chancellor Merkel will assume the helm of a troubled country – again. She did it in 2005 in a hairline victory over her rival Gerhard Schroeder in the midst of a troubled economy. She did it in 2009, again amidst a global recession and a nervous electorate fearful of an unraveling of the Euro system and indeed the European project. She repeated in 2013, amidst multiple global foreign policy crises and increasing demands on Germany to help solve them. She won that year by conveying an image of a zen-like composure in the face of serious challenges.
In 2017, Merkel will face challenges which cumulatively come to those long in public office or in the public eye, who become targets of those in opposition frustrated by the longevity of a winning political leader, by the media which longs for something new to report, and by the mere fact that the longer in office, the more missteps one can make.
Some compare Merkel’s fourth campaign to that of Helmut Kohl’s. Helmut Kohl won his first term as Chancellor in 1983 and his fourth term in 1994. Those last four years were disastrous as Kohl simply ran out of political gas because he had no real innovative platform to offer the voters, but also because there was an exhaustion factor working against him among the electorate. The result was a devastating loss for the CDU and its coalition partners the CSU and the FDP in 1998, which opened the door to the first SPD-led coalition with the Green Party. It was only in 2005 that the CDU was able to regain the Chancellory, barely squeaking out a victory with Angela Merkel as Chancellor. Merkel has been in the Kanzleramt ever since and has sustained her popular support throughout that period. Until now. But the circumstances for Merkel today are tougher than for Kohl 22 years ago.
The combination of domestic political posturing among political parties as well as the environment of anxiety among Germans in light of terrorist attacks around the European neighborhood, dysfunction within the European Union, including the fallout of Brexit, and the threats emerging well beyond the European continent which are then causing the refugees crisis – all that is being interpreted by the media and by political party pundits as evidence that Merkel is running out of gas, time, and patience with unceasingly impatient voters. The fact that the newest opposition party – the right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) – has been able to pick up traction in several state elections in recent years, most recently in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, adds to this trend. The weak stance of the Social Democrats in national polls has caused its party leaders to look for support by criticizing Merkel’s leadership while the other coalition partner in Merkel’s coalition in Berlin, the Bavaria based Christian Social Union, is intensifying its attacks on the Chancellor over her immigration policies as its leaders try to stave off the increasing popularity of the AfD nationally but most assuredly also in Bavaria. Meanwhile, the remaining parties in opposition, the Greens, the Liberals (FDP) and the Left Party, are each evaluating their options in next year’s election. While the Greens sense an opportunity to consider a coalition with Chancellor Merkel this time, they may need to share it with the Liberals to get a majority, assuming the Liberals are again represented in the Parliament. Yet that is a volatile mix and would lead to blowback from the leaders of the CSU in Bavaria for proposing such a coalition. Merkel could also pursue another option in coalition poker – joining forces again with the Social Democrats for a third time. But the leaders of the SPD have seen their national political popularity decline in the two coalitions with Merkel since 2005, even though they remain well represented at the state levels of government. They may find themselves doubting whether a third partnership in Berlin would be any more promising in their bid to regain the Chancellery.
While she has not announced her intentions formally, it is likely to be forthcoming in the December CDU party convention. There are several state elections in the spring of 2017, particularly in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. Measuring her national support will be shaped by the immigration crisis as well as a variety of other issues which will test her ability to project steady, calm leadership as she has been able to do successfully in the past. Even if the AfD continues to gain momentum at the regional level, and perhaps will gain enough to be represented in the federal parliament next year, that may only strengthen her position given the extremist rhetoric and positions emanating from AfD leadership.
One other barometer of Merkel’s strength may be reflected in the election of a new Federal Presidentafter the departure of current President Joachim Gauck early next year. That election will require a consensus among those parties likely to be her potential coalition partners. Who gets elected to this largely ceremonial office will be a picture of the political poker surrounding the September 2017 elections.
While the domestic critics of Merkel will be loud over the next twelve months, there is equal criticism emerging from some other European capitals charging Merkel with violations of European policies in dealing with the refugee issues or for colluding with Turkish President Erdogan in forging an agreement which some see as morally wrong – particularly after the attempted coup and his ensuing crackdown on all opposition parties, media suppression, and citizens facing mass arrests. On top of all this, Merkel will have her hands full in helping negotiate the Brexit deal with London as well in an acrimonious atmosphere in Brussels.
Angela Merkel is facing more serious challenges in her fourth run at the 2017 elections than did Helmut Kohl in 1994. Whether it be a wobbly European Union, an aggressive Russia, the serious domestic debate over the refugee challenge, or – an increasingly important factor – a crumbling consensus in and among political parties in Germany as they are confronted with the populist backlash raging through Europe.
Predictions are indeed hard to make – Especially about the future. Perhaps the prediction that Angela Merkel will gain another term as Chancellor is somewhat safer to make than Clinton winning the White House. But it is safe to say is that if these two women win their respective races, they will each confront enormous challenges in governing two very complicated Republics.