Germany’s politics for well over a decade now have been defined by a single principle: “Rule-and-Ruin”. Rule, that is, for Angela Merkel – and ruin for any other political force that joined her in a coalition government since she took office in 2005.
Today, even as Mrs Merkel still seems to be fairly on track for her fourth term, there is real reason to think that this old bargain is not going to work any longer. In fact, the future will look fundamentally different.
First, though, consider the roots of Mrs Merkel’s success in dominating the German political landscape in the past. Much of it has actually got to do with the historical moment the country was living through since the mid-2000s. Faced with tough reforms under Merkel’s Social-Democratic predecessor Gerhard Schröder, historic financial troubles, the Greek debt crisis and a rapidly changing world around them, Germans highly valued Merkel’s steady, calm and bureaucratic leadership and her tenacity in fighting for German interests during the world financial crisis and the Greek debt calamities. An ideological convergence of major parties and a rising de-politisation of society was then accompanied by a speedy economic recovery.
Popular with the broader population, Mrs Merkel moved to consolidate control over her Christian Democratic Union by cutting down any potential competitor early on and moving the party far into the political centre. There, she was able to adopt core Social Democratic policies and to demobilise voters on the ideological left. Ideological conservatives, meanwhile, had nowhere else to go until the populist AfD seriously came along round about 2015.
Capitalising on the historic moment and the demand for calm and steady leadership in the face of an ever more complicated world, Angela Merkel was simply the right person in the right place at the right time.
However, that despite its staggering success, such a model will only work until times and circumstances change. And today, this “ever more complicated world” has inescapably arrived in the middle of Germany’s political discourse. The big picture shows the country leaving behind its relative political apathy of the last decade and becoming sharply divided over refugees, identity debates, terrorism threats, economic inequality, EU reform and populism.
Clearly, any Chancellor whose main strength lay in neutralizing contentious debates through a non-political and bureaucratic style, will find it extraordinarily difficult to effectively operate in such circumstances.
At the same time, the micro-conditions of Germany’s politics have fundamentally changed as well. The Christian Social Union (CSU), Merkel’s sister party in Bavaria is no longer a reliable (if sometimes combative) partner for her; with a crucial state election coming up and the right-wing AfD seriously threatening the “traditional” CSU majority in Bavaria, the party is to move distinctly to the right under a new leadership model.
In Merkel’s own party, cracks are appearing after her disastrous showing in September’s Bundestag elections as well as her unwillingness to acknowledge the demand for change. With unease growing at the grassroots and an open succession question ahead, there is only little hope for Germany’s Conservatives to keep up the sense of stability and calm that came with Merkel’s long, undisputed leadership.
Most importantly, perhaps, Merkel’s own image among the people as a calm and steady manager has taken several hits recently: from the tumultuous refugee policy, the stunning failure of the security apparatus before the terror attack in Berlin in late 2016 and, most obviously, the historic failure to form a viable coalition government after September’s Bundestag elections. It is not surprising then, that a recent YouGov poll saw a majority of Germans prefer her leaving in the foreseeable future.
Moreover, even if the Social Democrats will in the end decide to join Merkel’s Conservatives for another “Grand Coalition”, the price tag will be heavy for the Chancellor. And agreeing to ever more Social Democratic projects exposes the CDU’s right wing to further allures by the populist AfD. In any event will the Social Democrats be a much more combative coalition partner this time around, realising that they will need to project a clear-cut profile in order to avoid the mentioned “Rule-and-Ruin” principle.
Germany is leaving behind more than a decade of political calm and is about to undergo a significant readjustment and renegotiation of its politics. Given, though, that most European democracies are already for quite some time operating under a splintering political landscape that includes at least one powerful right-wing populist party, one might even speak of a historic “normalisation” of Germany’s politics.
In any event, Angela Merkel is clearly not very well suited to be a successful leader under these new conditions and she is thus likely to share the fate of each and every post-war German Chancellor – none of which recognised the right time for them to go.