“The time has come to open a new chapter,” Angela Merkel said on October 29th, confirming reports that she would not run again as party leader. She will remain Germany’s chancellor for now, but said this will be her last term—saying publicly for the first time what had long been suspected. That means she will step down as chancellor in 2021 at the latest, and probably a bit earlier in order to let a successor bed in.
Mrs Merkel had intended to stand for re-election as party chairman at the next party conference of her centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) in December. But on October 28th the CDU suffered a major blow in regional elections in the German state of Hesse. The chancellor’s announcement is being seen as a dignified attempt to stage-manage her own exit. Germany’s most recent chancellors have all been pushed out of office, after clinging on to power too long. Mrs Merkel has said this is a fate she is keen to avoid. “As the chancellor and the chair of the CDU, I carry responsibility both for the successes and for the failures,” Mrs Merkel told journalists in Berlin.
In Hesse the CDU lost 11.3 percentage points compared with its score in 2013. It won the most votes with 27%, giving it the right to form the next coalition government. And Mrs Merkel’s close ally, the incumbent minister-president Volker Bouffier, will probably stay as state premier. But this was not a vote of dissatisfaction with Hesse’s regional government. The economy there is booming and the alliance between the conservatives and the centre-left Greens has proved unexpectedly harmonious and effective. It was instead a slap in the face for the central government in Berlin. Voters in Hesse punished both Mrs Merkel’s conservatives and the SPD for a series of rows and scandals in Berlin, where the two parties, along with the CDU’s much smaller sister party from Bavaria, form the federal government.
The coalition parties have spent much of this year in spats over migration or squabbles over top jobs in Berlin. Voters are fed up and appear to have used these regional elections to send a message to the central government to that effect. Now pressure is growing on the SPD’s leaders to leave the national coalition. This would bring down the government and probably spark fresh elections. Left-wing members believe that compromise with Merkel’s conservatives is destroying the party, and each disastrous poll strengthens that feeling.
The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) were even bigger losers, scoring 19.8%, also down around 11 percentage points, meaning that proportionally the result was even worse for them. That was their worst result since 1946 in the state, whose biggest city is Frankfurt. As in Bavaria two weeks earlier, the big success story was the Green party. It came in neck-and-neck with the SPD for second place, which for them meant a gain of almost 9 percentage points. The coalition wrangling now begins, with various permutations possible between the six parties in parliament. (The hard-right Alternative for Germany also did well, tripling their vote share to around 13%.) Most likely the Greens will be able to carry on in government with the CDU—although, because of conservative losses, possibly now in a three-way “Jamaica” coalition with the free-market Liberals.
On the evening of the Hesse vote an ashen-faced Andrea Nahles, the SPD party leader, faced journalists and talked of crisis, saying “the state of the government is not acceptable” and that something must change. She said she would start talks on October 29th, a sign she wants to prevent panic breaking out within the party and that she will not quit the coalition immediately. But the mood is so bad within the party that a coup against her uninspiring leadership is not out of the question.
Neither the SPD nor the CDU is ready for another election. The polls are gloomy and future leadership questions unresolved. It took six months to form a coalition after last year’s election, and since then the government has been embroiled in time-wasting infighting. The calculation may well be that voters would punish any politician seen to be creating more political paralysis. That suggests that Germany’s coalition may well limp on. But with Mrs Merkel apparently now fully aware of the weakness of her position and the dissatisfaction over her second “grand coalition” with the SPD, German politics has now entered a time of great uncertainty. After 13 years, the age of Merkel is clearly drawing to a close.
Now the race is on for her successor. In December CDU delegates will begin the process by voting in the new party leader. Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, has already announced he will run. Young, ambitious and outspoken, he has been a vocal conservative critic of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU’s current general-secretary, will also run. She is a centrist in the Merkel mode, and is viewed as the chancellor’s preferred candidate. But Mrs Merkel has also said she does not believe in anointing successors, so she will let rivals fight it out. Whoever does take over the country’s most powerful party will not only determine the direction of the CDU, but also of Germany and indeed Europe.
Update (October 29th 2018): This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Angela Merkel has confirmed reports that she will be stepping down as party chairman.