Quo Vadis, Germany?

Ever since Angela Merkel became Germany’s chancellor, she has been synonymous with the country’s success and its stability. With her announcement to not seek re-election, she has opened up Germany for a political paradigm shift – for better or worse.

In the now fourteen years that Merkel has been in office, she mastered the recession and managed the Eurozone crisis. She was highly respected and successful. A capable leader – not only for Germany, but also for the European Union as its de facto leader. And yet her decision in 2015 to accept over a million Syrian refugees has not only been detrimental to her legacy, but to her party, and has transformed German politics.

The political status quo in Germany used to be rather simplistic. The German parliament (Bundestag) would consist of the two major parties, CDU/CSU and SPD. Smaller parties would also sit in parliament if they managed to gain more than 5% of votes during the election. Until 1976, it was a three-party parliament. Thirty-four years later, at election day of 2017, it would be six. Germany’s history is well known. It is a history that is mainly culpable for Germany’s reluctance of championing a right-wing populist group in parliament. Two years ago, it changed, and with it, the political landscape of Germany’s politics.

But what happened? How could a populist movement succeed in a country as rich and successful as Germany? The simple answer is that Chancellor Merkel’s grand coalition had become rather unpopular. After all, she had governed Germany for twelve years at this stage, and most leaders eventually face an element of voter fatigue. This, however, does not explain the rise of populism. As so often associated with this phenomenon, immigration turned out to be the most significant reason. Many voters considered the decision of 2015 to be reprehensible, and regular press coverage on crimes committed by refugees changed the welcome attitude in Germany drastically. Worries were ignored, or answered by Merkel telling the German people “we can do this!” – a sentence that would haunt her in years to come. As a result, the CDU lost more than a million voters to the populist AfD in 2017, who became the third strongest group in parliament – from almost nowhere.

And while Merkel still won the election and remained chancellor, the result distinctly displayed that Germany’s conservative party had gradually transformed into a centrist party, with a more than occasional lean to the left under Merkel’s leadership. This alienated and disenfranchised traditional voters. It left a void that the AfD was happy to fill. Since that day, the AfD has continued to establish itself and is now present in all German state parliaments (Landtag). However, with Merkel’s announcement that she is leaving her party comes the question of a successor, as well as the possibility to realign the party’s identity, stopping the continuous decline of Germany’s major parties, as well as the rise of populism.

This decline has been felt the strongest by Germany’s second major party, the SPD. Ever since the SPD lost the election to Merkel in 2005, voters have continued to turn their back on the party. In 2017, the SPD received 20.5% of electorate votes. Their support had not been this low since before World War II. Over the last 19 years, the party has lost 20.4% of their voters. The SPD paid a high price for being a junior partner, totally disappearing in Merkel’s shadow. And for many of their traditional voters, the party has become unrecognizable, and yet almost interchangeable, with the CDU. As a result, many voters turned to the two remaining left-wing parties, Greens and The Left. Others, including those who had been against the government’s immigration policies, would also jump ship to the AfD.

An unusually high number of party leaders has not helped the SPD, either. The last one, Andrea Nahles, resigned in June, leaving three interim leaders to conduct the party’s affairs until the caucus meets in December – the month that Germany’s political future could be reshaped much sooner than the official general election date in 2021.

By now, almost all SPD politicians have recognised that the party’s recovery cannot occur during a grand coalition. An early exit from the coalition during the party’s convention in December is therefore not outside the realms of possibility.

In fact, most experts, and even CDU and SPD politicians, have declared that the scenario in which the grand coalition finishes its term was rather unlikely.
If the SPD was to opt-out, a new general election would be the most likely scenario. Merkel’s pragmatism, as well as a fairly strong opposition on the left, would make it almost impossible to govern her last years without a majority in parliament. Germany’s minor parties, such as the Liberals, the Greens or The Left have been anticipating this election and like their chances. So does the AfD.

Nonetheless, all will depend on the two major parties. After a split, the SPD would likely return to its left-wing traditions and become the working men’s party again. It is not a matter of choice anymore, but one of political survival. A promising scenario for the SPD is a coalition with the Greens, and perhaps even The Left. It is a combination, however, that could change Germany drastically – not only domestically by expanding the welfare state as well as championing other socialist ideas, but on the international stage, where an unprecedented retreat of Germany as Europe’s de facto leader would likely occur.

The CDU is tasked with stopping this scenario from occurring. A lot will depend on choosing an adequate successor for Merkel. Someone who can attract undecided voters, as well as those who voted for the AfD or Greens in 2017. The decision will likely be between Kramp-Karrenbauer and Friedrich Merz. No matter who it might be, however, the CDU needs to say goodbye to “Merkelism”, and realign itself to the conservative side of politics. It is what has made the party successful since Chancellor Adenauer took the reigns in 1949.

During the next election, whether it will be in 2021 or sooner, much more will be at stake than just the chancellorship. It will be a vote on what direction Germany is taking over the next decade and beyond. Can the traditional parties recover and prevail, or will Germany, just like so many other states beginning to face a political change, form a coalition with the populists? It is a question that may also decide how kindly Merkel’s tenure will be judged by history.