Merkel’s Retreat

The Chancellor outlasted and outwitted rivals for almost two decades—the next six weeks will indicate if she can manage her succession.

Angela Merkel’s name appeared nowhere on the ballot October 28 as voters went to the polls in the western German state of Hesse. But this election sealed the fate of Europe’s longest-serving and most influential democratically elected leader. The harsh judgment of 3 million voters in Hesse, where Merkel’s CDU lost 11 points and suffered its worst result in a half-century, led her within a few hours on October 29 to relinquish the chairmanship of her party, while expressing the readiness to remain chancellor through the end of 2021 and forsaking any future candidacy for public office. This political earthquake releases long-building tensions within the CDU; it is unclear whether Merkel will be able to manage her succession and rule to the end of her term. It will certainly undermine her authority and that of the already shaky coalition government she leads. It could also complicate U.S. efforts to collaborate with Europe on key issues from defense to trade, because precious little gets done in Europe without Germany’s support. The coming six weeks will be among the most hard-fought and consequential in Germany’s postwar history.

This political earthquake releases long-building tensions within the CDU; it is unclear whether Merkel will be able to manage her succession and rule to the end of her term.

Sunday was an even bigger disaster for Merkel’s center-left coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), who fell below 20 percent, their worst result ever in Hesse. Both the CDU and the SPD lost more than ten percentage points compared to 2013, continuing the dramatic fall of the two largest German parties. The Greens narrowly beat the SPD and have eclipsed them nationally as the most popular center-left party (the Greens average 20 percent, ahead of the SPD’s 15 percent). The other big winner was the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD – 13 percent), picking up nine points. Some see that as a far-right triumph, but this misses the bigger trend. The crumbling support for large centrist parties is part of a broader political fragmentation, leaving German politics more unsettled than it has been for a generation, but still firmly democratic. There are now six established parties, making stable two-party coalitions increasingly difficult. The trend is toward weaker governments with smaller majorities and less policy commonality, at a time when the European and international challenges are only growing.

Three formidable rivals representing distinct CDU constituencies quickly threw their hats in the ring to succeed Merkel, reflecting the fragility of her position since the party’s disappointing 2017 federal election result. Health minister Jens Spahn offers youth, energy, and a conservative, sometimes combative edge. Party Secretary General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is a moderate with deep connections inside the CDU who can point to her governing success as a two-time leader of the state government in the Saarland.  Friedrich Merz, a former rival whom Merkel forced out of the parliamentary leadership in 2002, has strong conservative and economic credentials and leads the Atlantik-Brücke, which promotes strong U.S.-German ties.  Each of these candidates will have to demonstrate energy and ideas for revitalizing the party and adapting it for the future. Other candidates could join the fray, and the outcome is uncertain—a striking development in a party that specializes in predictability rather than fireworks.  After December, Merkel’s position as chancellor will depend on the support of the new CDU leader, who will enjoy the support of the party and the Bundestag caucus.  At the same time, some in the SPD advocate withdrawing from the coalition or at least sharpening the party’s profile inside the Grand Coalition.  These sentiments could come to a head if the CDU strikes a more conservative path under a new leader or if Merkel is forced from office; new elections could be the result.

Other candidates could join the fray, and the outcome is uncertain—a striking development in a party that specializes in predictability rather than fireworks.

The fortunes of Merkel and the CDU will be felt around Europe and across the Atlantic.  The Trump administration has made Merkel the target of many complaints: merchandise trade imbalances; Germany’s low defense spending; the North Stream 2 gas pipeline; transatlantic disagreement over Iran sanctions; or the migration crisis that hit Europe in 2015.  What will be the impact of Merkel’s retreat on Washington? First, a change in Berlin is not guaranteed to smooth relations with the Trump administration. Merkel is one of the biggest supporters in Germany of a strong relationship with the U.S., despite the harsh and at times personal rhetoric from the president and the German public’s deep mistrust toward Washington.  The CDU stands out on the German landscape as the party most ready to find practical ways to work with the Trump administration; any successor, regardless of his or her personal inclination, would find it hard to be more accommodating toward the U.S., because the CDU has to govern in coalition.  Second, getting things done with Europe will get harder. Roads to effective political or economic collaboration may run through Brussels but usually start in Berlin. Although some may see a divided Europe as serving American interests, a Europe without leadership will be less able to share defense burdens and take tough positions on international issues where the U.S. needs allies, such as Syria, Russia, or China. Third, the prospects for addressing transatlantic trade will remain complicated: Merkel was crucial to the EU-U.S. trade détente achieved July 25 between President Trump and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and she stands out for her pragmatism toward the Trump administration.   The dynamics within the EU, in particular the skepticism of some key member states to Juncker’s approach, are a significant constraint that any future leader will have to manage in addition to internal coalition dynamics.  In the twilight of Merkel’s rule, there is no guarantee transatlantic relations will get easier when she is gone.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
Jeffrey Rathke

Jeff Rathke

President of AICGS

Jeffrey Rathke is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Prior to joining AICGS, Jeff was a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at CSIS, where his work focused on transatlantic relations and U.S. security and defense policy. Jeff joined CSIS in 2015 from the State Department, after a 24-year career as a Foreign Service Officer, dedicated primarily to U.S. relations with Europe. He was director of the State Department Press Office from 2014 to 2015, briefing the State Department press corps and managing the Department's engagement with U.S. print and electronic media. Jeff led the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was deputy chief of staff to the NATO Secretary General in Brussels. He also served in Berlin as minister-counselor for political affairs (2006–2009), his second tour of duty in Germany. His Washington assignments have included deputy director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs and duty officer in the White House Situation Room and State Department Operations Center.

Mr. Rathke was a Weinberg Fellow at Princeton University (2003–2004), winning the Master’s in Public Policy Prize. He also served at U.S. Embassies in Dublin, Moscow, and Riga, which he helped open after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Rathke has been awarded national honors by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as several State Department awards. He holds an M.P.P. degree from Princeton University and B.A. and B.S. degrees from Cornell University. He speaks German, Russian, and Latvian.