Angela Merkel will be leaving office in the next months, her popularity intact among voters, and widely admired outside Germany as a chancellor who skillfully guided her country and Europe through many crises.
On the other hand, her center-right political bloc is in chaos.
Their worst ever national election result Sunday was a defeat for the once dominant Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, Christian Social Union. After 16 years of being in power, the Union bloc received less than 25% of the vote. It may be forced to become an opposition party.
That is largely due to Armin Laschet, her party’s inept candidate. His gaffes, chummy demeanor and misguided personality contrasted with Merkel’s calm, professional image.
However, observers believe that the party’s long-serving leader is at least partially responsible for the dire circumstances in which it finds itself.
“Merkel has focused on governing in recent years and neglected her party work,” said Klaus Stuewe, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt.
Merkel was largely silent after he was removed as party leader in 2018. The Christian Democrats went through a series of difficult leadership contests. Its efforts to create a cohesive party program, which was for many years primarily focused on Merkel’s persona, were hampered by the turmoil. Many voters lost confidence in its ability in key areas like foreign policy and economic policy.
Merkel was still distant even after Laschet won nomination for the Union bloc in a heated battle in April. Some in her party wondered if she was concerned about what would happen to the party after she left. It could have been a wise political decision to allow younger politicians to take over as the 67 year-old leader. However, it was a disastrous move that left a large void. It is not known what Merkel thought about Laschet’s potential successor.
“For a long period, she didn’t campaign for Laschet at any time. She supported him only at the end of the Bundestag election when it was already too late,” stated Stuewe.
Laschet, acknowledging that he was not able to benefit from Merkel’s global stature, said that “no one had an incumbent Bonus in this election”.
Although the Union bloc still wants to be a leader of the next government, it is now in a difficult position with its second-place finish in Sunday’s election behind the center left Social Democrats.
Some members of the party suggested that it might be more beneficial to renew for a longer period.
“Ofcourse we’re ready to talk,” stated Markus Soeder (Bavarian governor, Christian Social Union), who was defeated by Laschet for the position of chancellor.
However, Soeder stated that his Union bloc faction is equally open to going into opposition. He added: “We won’t try to get together a government at any cost.”
According to Julia Reuschenbach (political scientist at the University of Bonn), it is unlikely that Merkel’s poor performance will affect her popularity as a caretaker chancellor. She could stay on for several months as Germany’s coalition talks continue.
Reuschenbach stated that “As long the formation of a new cabinet lasts, she will presumably continue to be the experienced, seasoned politician who now has to lead the country during a transition period.”
Merkel’s politics may outlive her reign in some ways.
Olaf Scholz led the Social Democrats to narrow victory. He successfully adopted Merkel’s calm and factual style of campaign. Experts predict that her strong commitment to European integration as well as the trans-Atlantic alliance will continue under Scholz and Laschet.
Frank Brettschneider, a specialist on communications theory at the University of Hohenheim, stated that in domestic policy, her successor would have to be able to act as a mediator between the three coalition parties.
Germany’s next chancellor will have to address the most critical criticism of Merkel’s approach to politics, which was that it did not keep up with the major changes taking place in Germany and abroad.
Some people saw Merkel as an anchor of stability in turbulent times. Others, however, saw her as a source for stagnation.
Merkel failed to make the necessary reforms, including the digitalization and greening of Germany’s heavy industries and schools. Even though many, loud protests were made to accelerate Germany’s response towards climate change, Merkel made sure that the country’s powerful automotive industry was protected from harsh measures.
“During Trump’s presidency, she was a project screen for many of a less liberal and cosmopolitan but still at its core conservative approach to politics,” stated Stuewe, a political scientist.