German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 29, 2018, announced her resignation, a day after her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered yet another crushing election defeat. Pictured: Merkel leaves after a press conference at a retreat of the CDU leadership on November 5, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 29, 2018, announced her resignation, a day after her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered yet another crushing election defeat. Merkel said she would step down as leader of her party in December and would not seek re-election in 2021.
In the state election in Hesse, Germany's two biggest parties received their worst results in more than half a century. The CDU dropped from 38% to 27%, the Social-Democrats (SPD) from 30% to less than 20%. Both parties continue a losing streak that shows no sign of reversal. Rather, the downturn seems to be accelerating. In last year's general elections, Merkel's party and its ally, the Social Democrats, recorded their worst results up to then in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Throughout much of Germany's postwar history, the CDU and SPD each used to achieve about 40% of the votes. In last autumn's general elections, the CDU and SPD combined barely managed to surpass the 50% threshold to form a government. Recent polls see them combined at barely 40% (24% for the CDU and 15% for the SPD).
"The time has come to open a new chapter," Merkel said. In a letter to the party, Merkel admitted mistakes that her government may have made "in recent weeks and months". According to Merkel, the voters did not acknowledge the current government's "decent" achievements due to the latter's wrong "work culture" that "doesn't meet" Merkel's "personal standards" -- apparently referring to the public feud between her and the CDU's Bavarian sister-party CSU over immigration policy.
Merkel went on to say, "For the rest of the election period, I'm ready to continue to work as Chancellor," meaning that she will step down as chancellor in 2021 at the latest, or maybe a bit earlier, if there is a chance to enthrone her protégée, CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, before the next elections.
Kramp-Karrenbauer's success, however, is far from guaranteed. The race to succeed Merkel as the party's chair is wide open, and these days, being a Merkel confidante is a liability rather than an asset. For months, pundits in Germany and abroad had speculated about the "end of the Merkel era", even more so after she had lost a key supporter in a party rebellion earlier this year. On September 25, in a surprising vote among members of the CDU and CSU parties, Merkel's longtime ally Volker Kauder was ousted after 13 years as parliamentary group leader of the combined faction.
The day Kauder lost, every political observer in Germany knew that the end of Merkel's chancellorship was close.
Ever since Merkel took office in 2005, Kauder had chaired the party caucus and pushed the party's MPs to rubber stamp all of Merkel's ideas, many of which were contrary to what the party used to stand for: the sudden nuclear phase-out after the tsunami in Japan in March 2011 (only months after Merkel's government had passed a law for a lifetime extension of Germany's nuclear power plants); Greece's bailouts, and especially opening Germany's borders to more than a million migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East in 2015.
Kauder had been known as someone who suppressed internal debates, even if he had to resort to threats and outbursts of fury to silence dissenters. When, in August 2015, 60 MPs of the CDU/CSU voted against yet another Greek bailout (the third one), Kauder shocked his party fellows by saying that the nay-sayers could no longer be trusted with any important parliamentary committees. "I couldn't believe what the chairman of my caucus had said", Detlef Seif, a CDU MP told a newspaper.
Christian-Democrat MP Andreas Mattfeldt wrote on Facebook, "I sincerely hope that the CDU caucus won't follow such statements!"
In November 2015, Christian Democrat MP Andreas Mattfeldt addressed a parliamentary session regarding the unchecked mass-immigration that had begun in September, saying:
"The biggest challenge -- and I think we have to be careful not to overstretch ourselves – is dealing with the refugee movement... This is the first time I have the impression that we as state authority have lost control in the refugee crisis. We have lost control, perhaps because we are afraid of discussing unpopular facts and of making sure that that this country's capacity to take in refugees is not exceeded. Rejections must not be a taboo."
Germany's biggest newspaper, Bild, described Kauder's reaction: "Volker Kauder couldn't sit on his chair anymore. He walked through the ranks like a captive tiger in his cage, supposedly to make sure that nobody applauded."
When Mattfeldt had finished, Kauder yelled at him: "You should be ashamed of yourself!"
While Merkel is known for never attacking anyone -- not even during election campaigns -- she used aides like Kauder to bring the party into line and quell dissent. Kauder was also among the main proponents of the open-borders policy. In April 2015, he suggested that Germany could take in up to 16 million migrants: "In Kurdistan, there are five million residents with one million refugees. We in Germany can absorb considerably more refugees."
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Only weeks ago, Merkel had insisted that she would run again for the position of party chair at the CDU congress on December 6, 2018.
At that time, only three outsiders, none of whom enjoyed the backing of a regional association, dared to challenge Merkel. Their candidacies were ridiculed; one of Germany's public broadcasters ran the headline "Revolt of the dwarves". While none of these candidates was expected to have a chance against Merkel, it would have been entirely possible that, given that the vote is secret, the delegates would have punished Merkel with a weak result -- a humiliation she has now avoided by not seeking re-election.
Now that Merkel is out of the way, many party bigwigs are expected to throw their hats into the ring: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (who would probably emulate Merkel's policies and government style); the more conservative Minister of Health Jens Spahn, and possibly Friedrich Merz, a former chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary caucus. Merz announced in 2009 that he would "take a break from politics," and has not held any office for 14 years.
Whoever succeeds Merkel as party chair will not inherit any real political power. According to Germany's constitution, it is the Chancellor who "determines the general guidelines of government policy". So the next party leader's sole role will be to share the blame for any new election defeats, starting with the elections to the European Parliament in June 2019 -- unless he distinguishes himself from Merkel and presents a set of convincing ideas for Germany's future. It would be a boon for the party and the country if the new leader were not one of those who have been silently following Merkel's path for more than 13 years.
Stefan Frank is a journalist and author based in Germany.