29 October 2018

In a move some had expected, German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday announced that she would not run for re-election as leader of her party (the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, CDU) at their December convention. She also made clear the current term, which lasts until 2021, would be her last as German chancellor, and that she would not take up any other political role after that. After many politically highly difficult months for Merkel, the CDU’s poor results in Sunday’s elections in Hessen seem to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back (the party dropped from 38.3% to 27%, its worst result in the state since the 1950s).

Just to be clear: Merkel is not yet out. While from December onwards, she will no longer be leader of the CDU, she will remain Germany’s head of government. For now, at least. It is possible, even quite likely, that her governing ‘Grand Coalition’ – which is made up of her CDU, their Bavarian sister party CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) – will break down before the end of their term. While even in such a case Merkel could theoretically continue at the helm of a minority government, this now seems highly unrealistic. A snap election would be a more likely consequence, and would result in Merkel’s premature departure from Germany’s political top job. But perhaps it will not even come to that, as her party may also decide in the coming months to oust her as chancellor, and put in place a caretaker (e.g. former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble) until the next elections.

That Merkel was willing to hand over the reins over her party, without simultaneously vacating the chancellor’s office as well, is a clear sign of how strong pressure on her had become. Over the past years, she had consistently and publicly ruled out remaining on as chancellor without holding party leadership, criticising the weak position it would put her in. When her predecessor, SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in 2004 resigned as leader of his party but insisted on remaining chancellor, Merkel commented, “This is the beginning of the end for chancellor, and the beginning of the end of this government.” The same can now be assumed to hold for her.

This comes as Merkel in September already lost de facto control over another key position within her party. In a secret ballot her MPs rebelled against Merkel’s choice for leader of the parliamentary group, her close ally Volker Kauder, and instead heaved his opponent Ralph Brinkhaus into power. That she now loses control over the party leadership as well – even if it will be to someone close to her – is weakening her hold on power even further.

The fight for succession begins

The race to succeed Merkel has already begun, with three CDU bigwigs throwing their hats into the ring quickly after she announced her decision not to stand for re-election. Crucially, this will be a debate not only about personnel, but also about the substance and future direction of the party. After nearly two decades of Merkel leading the party (she became leader in 2000), her departure offers the opportunity for a clear break, which many are keen to use.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (or AKK, to keep things simple) is seen by many as both Merkel’s protegée and the candidate with the best chances. She is currently the CDU’s secretary general, and could be expected to broadly keep the party on the centrist course struck by Merkel during her years in government. On the other side of the debate, Jens Spahn, the Health Minister, is the most prominent candidate of the conservative wing. He is an outspoken critic of Merkel, but is seen by many as too young and inexperienced to take on the leadership yet. To the surprise of many, former CDU chief whip Friedrich Merz also announced his candidacy, and already received support from many on the party’s pro-business wing. Merz had left politics in 2009, but not before being effectively defeated by Merkel in a prolonged political conflict.

The ensuing CDU-internal debate will buy some time for their coalition partners, the CSU and the SPD. Both have their own fish to fry. The SPD’s rank and file are deeply unhappy with the current coalition, and calls for them to leave government and return to the opposition benches are growing again. The CSU is still debating whether, or rather when, to axe its own leader, the Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. Both parties will be happy for the limelight to shine on Merkel and the CDU for the next few days.

German navel gazing continues

German politics will become even more inward-looking, following Merkel’s announcement yesterday. The trend is already visible since the federal elections last year. As all governing parties are struggling with their own internal dynamics and trying to maintain power, they have less resources and political capital to spare on pushing through European or global projects. With Merkel’s succession now being openly discussed, this will intensify.

This development is particularly problematic for French President Emmanuel Macron. At the German government’s inception in April this year, the ‘Grand Coalition’ had been heralded by many as a keen ally of Macron’s plans for large-scale European reforms, particularly on the Eurozone. The recent months had already caused serious doubts about this actually happening. Now it is even clearer. Hopes for meaningful progress on Eurozone reform and the banking union at the December summit, for example, can safely be shelved for now. So can any hopes, if they were still held, that Merkel would weigh in more actively in the Brexit debate.