BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel may be running out of road after 12 years at the country’s helm.
With attempts to form a fourth-term government in disarray, Merkel’s once unquestioned ability to steer Europe is waning as the region’s biggest economy heads into uncharted waters and possibly a protracted political stalemate. Markets reacted with unease, with the euro slumping the most in three weeks against the dollar.
The breakdown in coalition talks late Sunday — amid disputes over migration and other policies between a grab-bag of disparate parties — raised the prospect of fresh elections, which probably will be held next spring. Relying on a minority administration with shifting alliances to pass legislation would run counter to Merkel’s promise to provide a stable government.
However she attempts to move forward, European decisions on everything from Brexit and Greece to Russian sanctions and French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for strengthening the euro will now be hemmed in by Merkel’s weakened role as a caretaker chancellor.
“What it means is that Germany is pulled inward because it has to manage its political transition,” said Daniel Hamilton, executive director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “So the state of drift in Europe continues and now Germany, which has been the stabilizer of the last number of years, is part of that.”
Merkel, 63, said she plans to stay on as acting chancellor and will consult with Germany’s president later Monday on what comes next.
Her options for stitching together a majority government appear drastically narrowed, and she sounded uncertain about the way ahead.
“It’s a day at the very least for a profound examination of Germany’s future,” Merkel said in Berlin after the Free Democrats, her second-term partner between 2009 and 2013, pulled out of the coalition talks. “As chancellor, as caretaker chancellor, I will do everything to make sure this country continues to be well governed through the tough weeks ahead.”
Merkel’s biggest setback since she first won the chancellorship in 2005 makes her the latest victim of a surge in anti-establishment politics across large parts of Europe, driven in part by a migration crisis that pushed questions of national identity to the forefront and upended her non-ideological approach to governing.
Merkel was weakened after a September election as voters angry with her decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to more than a million asylum seekers punished her conservatives by voting for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) far-right party.
Germany has had only eight chancellors in the seven decades since World War II, but Merkel’s move to take in more than 1 million asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016 spurred a backlash in elections held in September. Her bloc took its lowest share of the vote since 1949 despite a booming economy, while the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany surged into parliament with 12.6 percent of the vote.
“Migration was an absolutely central topic” that dogged the coalition talks, Merkel said.
FDP Chairman Christian Lindner said the draft agreement to enter into formal coalition talks was riddled with “countless contradictions.” Policy disagreements on immigration, climate and energy proved so entrenched that even Merkel, once dubbed “the queen of the back rooms,” couldn’t bridge them.
The chancellor could potentially now turn for support to the Social Democrats, the junior partner in her last government, though SPD leaders have said they are not interested in another alliance.
There is little appetite for a new election — especially as the main parties fear that the AfD will win more than the almost 13 percent of votes it secured to enter parliament for the first time as the third-biggest party — though that may change once voters assess the new level of uncertainty.
But Merkel, a former East German physicist whose rise to the top began with the fall of the Berlin Wall 28 years ago, has made a career of defying expectations and making surprise shifts, including Germany’s exit from nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
“She’s clearly diminished, but it might be too early to say it’s the end of the era,” Hamilton said.