German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that she will step down as head of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and will not seek re-election as chancellor in 2021. That move, while understandable given her coalition’s recent election defeats, renders her a lame duck. German politics is likely to be weakened, and the world will lose a leader and a champion of liberal values at the very time that such leadership is needed most.
Merkel grew up in East Germany, and taught chemistry until she entered politics when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. She joined the CDU when it merged with an East German party and was elected to the Bundestag in the first united federal German elections in 1990. She was tapped for duty in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Helmut Kohl, and became secretary-general of the CDU when it lost power in 1998, and head of the party two years later. She led the party to victory over the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDP) in national elections in 2005 and became chancellor that year. She has governed Germany ever since, making her the longest-serving leader in the European Union. Even more important than the length of her tenure has been her policies: She is a stalwart defender of liberal values, European solidarity and the rule of law. As President Donald Trump retreats from many long-held positions of the United States, many observers now refer to Merkel as the real “leader of the free world.”
Hers has not been an easy term in office. She has dealt with the financial crisis, the Greek crisis, Brexit, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s muscle flexing on Europe’s eastern borders, and Trump’s bashing of NATO and the European Union. She surmounted most of them and those victories propelled her to a series of election wins.
More damaging, however, has been her response to the immigration crisis that unfolded as Syria collapsed into civil war and mayhem. She has been firm in her commitment to an open-door policy for Germany. Her country has accepted more than 1 million refugees, which has contributed greatly to the erosion of support for her and her party.
The result has been a series of electoral defeats that began with the September 2017 parliamentary ballot: The CDU prevailed, but in a much weakened state, winning just one-third of the vote. It took weeks to cobble together a ruling coalition that has been fractious and dysfunctional. Public dissatisfaction has mounted ever since and was plain in two recent regional elections.
In early October, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), lost more than 10 percentage points in a ballot for the Bavarian state government — it still won 37. 2 percent of the vote — and the SPD vote dropped to under 10 percent. The SPD was surpassed by the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which took over 10 percent of the vote, while the left-wing Greens became the second-largest party in the state house with 17.5 percent of votes.
That outcome was replicated two weeks later in elections in the state of Hesse. There, the CDU still came in first with 27 percent of votes cast, but that was an 11 percent drop from the previous ballot. SDP support tumbled from 31 percent to 20 percent, the lowest point in 72 years — a result that one party leader called “unacceptable.” The Greens again turned in a strong performance, claiming just under 20 percent of the vote, while the AfD share of ballots jumped to 13.1 percent, a 9 percentage point increase. Given the state’s centrality — it is home to Frankfurt, the country’s financial capital — it is considered a bellwether for national politics. Merkel called the results “bitter” and “disappointing,” and weighed heavily on her decision to relinquish the party leadership post and not run for re-election as chancellor.
German politics will now focus on the contest to replace her and that competition is likely to be a referendum on her legacy. Neither of the two leading candidates is well-known outside the country, but her decision to step down will give them and their party time to regain public support. There is a strong likelihood that the CDU will become more conservative — it is in the party’s DNA — to address mounting insecurity that the AfD is exploiting. That would align Germany with wider trends in European politics.
That evolution must not come at the expense of the liberal values that Germany and its leadership have long championed. Especially when the U.S. appears less interested in defending the global order, European leaders must step up, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has in his defense of the international economic order and his promotion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Germany has been a critical partner as Japan has forged partnership agreements on strategic and economic issues with Europe. Whoever succeeds Merkel must not relinquish that role or that outlook.
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