IF ANGELA MERKEL felt emotional, she didn’t show it. Her speech on October 29th consisted of numbered bullet points, about as dramatic as a shopping list. But she was declaring the end of her reign. In December Mrs Merkel will step down as head of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), ending almost two decades as leader of Germany’s most powerful political party. She also confirmed what many had long assumed: that this is her last term as German chancellor. She added that she was “willing” to remain chancellor until the end of the current parliament in 2021—clearly aware that, with her power ebbing, she may not be able to.
Mrs Merkel’s announcement came a day after a regional election in the German state of Hesse. Her Christian Democrats won the most votes with 27%, and her close ally, Volker Bouffier, looks set to remain state premier. But it was still a devastating loss of support, down by more than 11 percentage points compared with 2013. The centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) also lost around 11% of the vote, scoring only 20%. Surveys show that many in Hesse wanted to punish the central government in Berlin, where Mrs Merkel’s conservative bloc governs in coalition with the SPD. The coalition parties have spent much of this year distracted by infighting and undignified spats. Voters have had enough. “It is a clear signal that this can’t go on like this,” the chancellor said.
After 13 years under Mrs Merkel as chancellor, Germany is ready for change. But at first glance it is not clear why. The economy is stronger than ever, with unemployment at an all-time low. The country has managed to deal well with the large influx of asylum-seekers in 2015 and 2016, and since then migrant arrivals have fallen dramatically. The issue of refugees barely featured in election campaigns in Hesse.
“The dissatisfaction is not about policies, but rather about how politics is carried out,” says Thorsten Haas, of Berlin’s Free University. The squabbles in Berlin play into feelings that politicians are out of touch and more interested in their own jobs than serving the country. Loyalties to the traditional big-tent parties have also weakened, and voters are less likely to vote according to affiliations to a trade union, the church or a particular social class. Politics has become more about identity and the debate between open versus closed—questions about which the centre-left Greens and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) are clear, explaining both parties’ success. The CDU and SPD, on the other hand, are both internally split on issues like migration. In Hesse the centre-right CDU lost roughly equal numbers of voters to the Greens and the AfD.
Mrs Merkel’s successor will have to decide where to position the party. Keep to her centrist course and lose more voters to the AfD? Or head down a more conservative path and risk liberals migrating to the Greens? In December delegates at the CDU’s party conference in Hamburg will answer that question by choosing a new leader, who will also probably be the party’s next choice of chancellor.
Battle is joined
So far, there are three declared candidates. Friedrich Merz, a former leader of the parliamentary party, was one of Mrs Merkel’s first victims on her way to the top. After she beat him for a key party post in 2002, he left politics to work in finance, later becoming chairman of the supervisory board of the German bit of BlackRock, an asset-management company. Socially conservative, a charismatic speaker and close to business, he has sniped at Mrs Merkel’s government from the sidelines. It is hard to imagine she could last her full term with him as party leader, and he is the man to watch.
Another conservative hopeful is Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister. He is young, ambitious and an outspoken critic of Mrs Merkel’s refugee policy, making him a tricky party leader for her. Popular with the right of the CDU, he likes to hang out with Austria’s young conservative chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, and Donald Trump’s outspoken ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell. His opinions go down less well with centrist party members and voters.
Mrs Merkel’s preferred candidate is Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer, whom she picked in February to be party general secretary, after a competent stint as premier of the state of Saarland (Germany’s second-smallest). She is seen as a centrist Merkel ally—not a plus for a party looking for change. But she also holds some more socially conservative positions than the chancellor. She could appeal to Germany’s political centre, where elections have usually been won, though that could now be changing. However, she still needs to emerge from Mrs Merkel’s shadow.
Whoever takes over, this week has produced bad news for the AfD. The chancellor has been a useful hate figure. “Merkel muss weg”, or “Merkel has to go”, has been a key slogan for years, and would have been a feature of AfD campaigns at three state elections in eastern Germany next year. A big worry for the AfD is that a more conservative CDU leader may lure back some disaffected voters.
Can Mrs Merkel carry on? That depends on whether she can work with the CDU’s next party leader, and whether her SPD coalition partners can—unlikely if the new CDU party leader is a right-winger. Meanwhile, outside Germany liberals are already mourning the upcoming loss of the “leader of the free world”—never a title she liked. Germany’s foreign policy is more than just one person. But as a seasoned negotiator able to bang heads together, Mrs Merkel will be greatly missed.