Angela Merkel's exit could destroy stable party system in place since WWII

Two main parties — the CDU and the Social Democrats — have led German governments for more than 70 years. That may be about to change with the pending departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Support for German chancellor began to drop soon after she opened country's door to 1 million refugees

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that the state of the governing coalition is 'unacceptable' after her party lost significant ground in two recent state elections. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

The criticism was brutal.

"The image projected by the governing coalition is unacceptable."

But it didn't come from the increasingly powerful opposition in Germany. This was the verdict of  the chancellor herself. And with that, Angela Merkel announced Monday she would not run again in December for the post of leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the main party in the grand coalition governing the country.

Having said that, Merkel, 64, also said she would remain as chancellor until the next scheduled elections in 2021. In other words, a political death foretold and a very long deathbed scene.

As a commentator in the major German weekly Die Zeit put it, she is departing "in her inimitable way."

That's Merkel's hope. Reality may dash that hope — but more of that later.

Merkel 'felt she was irreplaceable'

She was once called the "Teflon Chancellor." But hubris infected her, according to Jakob Augstein, longtime columnist for the magazine Der Spiegel.

"She stayed too long in her job," he wrote Monday. "It was a sign of inexcusable hubris. In a crisis — but when isn't there a crisis? — Angela Merkel felt she was irreplaceable."

The voters increasingly didn't.

On Sunday in elections in Hesse, one of 16 German states, her CDU dropped from over 38 per cent to 27 per cent of the vote. In Bavaria, the CDU's sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), dropped by 10 per cent in elections two weeks earlier.

The other big loser in these elections was the Social Democratic party, the junior member of the grand coalition. 

In both contests, the Greens on the left and the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) made big gains.

Commentators around Europe are already talking of the breakup of the stable party system that has seen either the CDU or the Social Democrats running German governments since the Second World War.

13 years in high office

The political writing was on the wall more than a year ago. In national elections Merkel's party lost eight per cent, dropping to 33 per cent. The Social Democrats did even worse, with only 20 per cent of the vote, their worst tally in 70 years. And the far-right AfD entered the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, for the first time, with over 12 per cent of the vote.

Merkel got another unmistakable warning in September. Her longtime ally Volker Kauder was dumped as the CDU's floor leader in the Bundestag in a vote by her own MPs. 

Merkel is greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as she arrives at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, in June. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Not surprisingly, in announcing her decision to step down as party leader on Monday, Merkel said she'd actually made her decision some time ago. She saw the political blood on the floor.

What went wrong for Merkel?

Some, like Augstein, point to the fact that 13 years in high office is too long and breeds a certain arrogance. Others point to her fateful decision in 2015 to open Germany's door and let in hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them Syrian.

I stood on the border between Hungary and Austria as the gates opened in September 2015 and the refugees flowed through, most to be taken by train to Munich. People cheered. Europe, and much of the world, applauded.

But beside me a German cameraman from Bavaria muttered, "The Germans aren't going to like this."

I was surprised and dismissive, but I shouldn't have been. The Germans swallowed and took in an estimated one million refugees, but almost from that moment Merkel's popularity began to drop. And just as significantly, the AfD, which was born as an anti-euro and European Union party, shifted dramatically. Its target now became immigrants and refugees, and it rose dramatically in the opinion polls.

Future of coalition uncertain

Merkel and her party have been steadily battered since then. But the Social Democrats have almost been knocked out. In Hesse, the Greens came within a few thousand votes of beating the Social Democrats into third place.

One German commentator called the grand coalition a "black hole" for the Social Democrats. They have been chained to Merkel and her policies, and their support has drained away. And so now many in the party leadership talk of crashing out of the government to save the soul of the party.

The breakup of the coalition would rip up Merkel's scenario of staying as chancellor until 2021 because early elections would almost certainly have to be held. And she has said she won't run again.

Demonstrators hold up portraits of victims of crime by refugees during a protest organized by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in September in reaction to a knife killing, allegedly by an Iraqi and a Syrian, that set off anti-immigrant mob violence. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

Regardless of who replaces her, the CDU may be tempted to shift to the right, becoming more overtly nationalist to try to win votes back from the AfD. And in the wake of early elections, it might be tempted to form a coalition with the AfD. It's hardly far-fetched — that's exactly what happened next door last year in Austria.

The prospect makes many of Germany's neighbours tremble. Jan Machacek, a Czech commentator, on Monday conjured up the vision of a newly nationalist German government bellowing "Germany First" in Trumpian fashion and undermining the vision and the structure of the European Union.

Enoch Powell, a British politician, once said, "All political careers end in tears."

Merkel isn't crying, but many in her party may be shedding tears over a tarnished legacy. 


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?