Was Angela Merkel’s resignation from the leadership of her party merely cosmetic? Alexandru Filip looks at the implications of her departure for German politics.
Angela Merkel’s announcement that she would withdraw from the leadership of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union caused more surprise outside Germany than within the country. The recent regional elections in the German federal state of Hesse have contributed to the perception of popular discontent with mainstream and moderate politics in Germany. Continuing the trend from regional elections in Bavaria (where the German Green Party and the far-right AfD made strong gains to the detriment of Social Democratic and Christian Democratic parties), both centrist parties suffered from heavy voter defection (over 10 percent each).
While the overall vote tally for the Hessian governing coalition of the Greens and the CDU remained somewhat stable, the Greens gained almost 20 percent of the vote, enough for a tie for second place with the Social Democrats. The AfD is the fourth best represented party—with their performance in Hesse, the Afd is now Present in all regional legislatures.
On the right it is likely that many were drawn by the AfD’s strong Eurosceptic, anti-globalization and anti-immigration stance. The fact that Die Linke, Germany’s far left party, gained only 1 percent compared to the previous election—and that the largest progressive winner was the Greens instead—indicates that the decline of centrist parties was non-economic in character. Voters seem to have been drawn to the two formerly outsider parties on the left and right not only due to discontent with the mainstream’s economic policies, but also because the latter display strong immobilism on post-materialist, cultural issues. The Greens and the AfD have taken up the issues of ‘new politics’ and emphasise strongly their positions on cultural liberalism and conservatism, a clash that seems to mobilise voters.
Merkel’s announcement that she would withdraw from the leadership of the CDU but continue in her role as chancellor can be interpreted as a somewhat cosmetic change, since the chancellorship is the post that matters the most. The head of the liberal FDP-Christian Lindner said Angela Merkel resigned from the wrong post, arguing that what she ought to have done  is relinquish the other position she occupies.
Where do we go from here and what does this spell for the near future of the German polity? Unfortunately, the answer may be ‘it depends’. The evolution of German politics in the near future and the fate of the current governing coalition may well depend on who will follow in Merkel’s footsteps as head of the CDU. The leadership of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was quick to come out and put in question the future of the ruling coalition.
One name heavily circulated for the leadership position is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, general secretary of the CDU, who is among the more progressive members of the ‘Union’ and occupies its left wing from a social policy perspective.
Such a turn of events would be a further incentive to the SPD to remain in government. Should it turn out to be a more conservative contender, who would pull the Christian Democratic Union further to the right (such as Jens Spahn, the minister of health or Friedrich Merz, a pre-Merkel head of the CDU-CSU fraction in the Bundestag), that could change the calculations for the German social democrats.
The SPD may choose to withdraw from the governing coalition, which would itself open the door a number of scenarios. On the one hand the Christian Democrats could continue to govern with Merkel heading a minority government. That is not implausible, and the prospect of a minority government was strongly on the table in the aftermath of Germany’s most recent federal elections. Merkel’s leadership style would fit a minority government. Over the years, she has shown the ability to compromise and negotiate, and be a consensus-seeking politician. Her less flashy, perhaps even dull, cold style and experience of governing together with Greens and SPD could lead to the other parties acquiescing to her rule until 2021.
On the other hand, a center-left withdrawal from government and enough tumult among conservatives could hypothetically trigger new elections. The prospect of yet another electoral horse-race was what led the SPD to take part in the current government following last autumn’s elections. While the SPD entered those elections with a vow not to join another grand coalition, they did so (to the disappointment of many who wished they would have carved out a new identity in opposition) when government-forming logic, the prospect of new elections, and high support for the far-right AfD demanded it.
Currently the SPD are faring just as bad, if not worse at the ballot box—as evidenced by the dismal vote tallies gained in Bavaria and Hesse—and it is uncertain if a new election could convince the voters who have already defected to come back. If anything, they may find themselves getting even fewer votes.
In a way, it boils down to whether the SPD wishes to face the punishment of the voters for breaking their pre-election ‘opposition vow’ now or at the next elections. If they manage to ride out the current electoral cycle in government and if the political and social environment in Germany stabilises for the next three years, they may get away with it and benefit from that socioeconomic stability and (potentially) short voter memory about 2018.
For the time being, it seems we will have to wait and see what developments within the CDU will be.
Alexandru Filip is a Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow based at the Hertie School of Governance.