Author: navos-Trainee Elizaveta Schregel
The tide is turning in Berlin – the ruling “grand coalition” of Chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), its sister party Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) are facing yet another crisis after the poor performance in the German general election a year ago and the tedious process of forging a stable government for Europe’s largest economy.
However, the reason for the current political upheaval in the German capital lies far away from Berlin, namely in two of Germany’s wealthiest federal states and conservative strongholds: Bavaria and Hesse, where regional parliament elections took place on 14th and 28th October 2018, respectively.
The federal republic of Germany it is a polycentric state where the head of each of the sixteen regional governments is an important political figure impacting national politics. The latest election results in regional parliaments are essential to domestic politics and are followed closely. Symbolizing key indicators of the current political mood in the country, the latest results delivered a strong message to the central government in Berlin: “Not like this!”
In both Bavaria and Hesse, the CDU/CSU and the SPD suffered historic losses. Their voters, disgruntled with the big party politics of recent years, flee to the smaller parties – namely Alliance 90/The Greens, which is moving into the power vacuum in the political center, and the populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose supporter base grew massively in the wake of the refugee crisis.
The recent election results signal the growing discontent with the ruling “grand coalition” which has governed Europe’s most populous country since 2013. The German people feel increasingly frustrated with the constant bickering within the administration, starting with the tiresome process of government building after last year’s general election, when it took the Conservatives six months to build a coalition, and on to disagreements on current issues ranging from the refugee crisis and energy policy to staffing decisions within the government. Even the leaders of the two sister parties, Merkel of the CDU and Bavaria’s Seehofer, have been vividly at odds for many months now. As Merkel herself put it a few days ago: “The government’s image is unacceptable.” Both the CDU/CSU and the SPD seem to be in desperate need of renovation.
On the other hand, smaller parties have benefited from the power vacuum that seems to have formed in the German politics: while the liberal, pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) staged a comeback in last year’s general election, it is the Greens that have done extremely well lately. As for the AfD, they have managed to deliver an effective performance in both last year’s general election and the aforementioned regional elections. The rise of the anti-immigrant AfD has been primarily propped with the popular discontent over the around one million refugees arriving in Germany from the Middle East, above all Syria, in 2015-2016.
The end of an era? Merkel steps down.
While the German party dynamics are fascinating – albeit arguably worrying – to observe, the most dramatic outcome from the elections in Bavaria and Hesse has already been spelled out. Monday 29th October 2018 became a historic day in Germany when Chancellor Angela Merkel, a larger-than-life figure in both German and European politics, announced that she would not seek reelection as CDU’s party chief at the upcoming party congress in December. This means that Merkel, who has been leader of the CDU since 2000 and Chancellor of Germany since 2003, will retire from politics and step down as Chancellor at the end of her time in office in 2021.
There is a certain sense of nostalgia in the air, with German and international media alike publishing lengthy pieces which feature photos of a younger Merkel and look back at her spectacular political career. At the same time, while some international observers write about “the end of an era”, the German public debate has been circulating terms such as “a new start”, “a new chapter” and “fresh wind”. As one German paper puts it, Merkel’s announcement inspired “relief and admiration” among her own party members. At the same time, this move was not completely unexpected from Merkel, who has been known for and commended on her ability to listen and take responsibility both for her own actions and those of the CDU/CSU.
The departure of Merkel did not come a total surprise, given the recent political dynamics in Germany; some would say it was long overdue. Furthermore, some popular political voices across the country have called on Merkel to retire not just as the CDU chairperson, but as the German Chancellor as well. In the past, Merkel herself has argued that powers of the ruling party leader and Chancellor should be in the hands of the same person. For now, though, she seems intent on sticking around.
What happens now?
Despite the current state of affairs, it is still possible that Merkel would be forced to step down as Chancellor before 2021. One option would require a vote of no confidence from the German parliament – for example, in the event of the SPD withdrawing from the coalition – which would trigger the dissolution of the government and a new general election.
Merkel’s ability to stay in power until the end of her current term would also be highly dependent on the person she would have to work with as head of the Conservatives.
So far, four persons have emerged as possible candidates to replace Merkel at the spearhead of the CDU.
Her clear favorite would be Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, commonly referred to as AKK, the current general secretary of the CDU. A former head or regional government in Saarland, she has been well positioned by Merkel to take over the party leadership. However, the perception of AKK as “mini-Merkel” or Merkel 2.0 might make it difficult for her to succeed against the clear wish for change within the party.
Friedrich Merz, who was Merkel’s old political rival within the CDU and was then pushed out of politics by her some ten years ago, is poised to make a surprise comeback, with the business circles having already declared their support for his candidature as the possible next chief of the party.
Jens Spahn, the thirty-eight-year-old Minister of Health from the rural Münsterland and a vocal critic of Merkel’s policies, has also proclaimed his interest in running for the position. Spahn has established himself as the voice of the more conservative ranks of the CDU is very popular with youth wing of the party.
Both Spahn and Merz would very likely prove to be difficult CDU party leaders for Merkel to work with.
Armin Laschet, the head of regional government in Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, has also been brought up as a possible candidate to take over the chairmanship of the CDU.
A new hope?
Future developments in the German politics would be something to watch in the coming months. The party dynamics within both the CDU/CSU and the SPD will determine not just the future of Germany in the coming years, but will have a significant impact on European and global politics as well.
It looks like Germany’s ruling political elite is facing the music. There is a clear yearning for self-reinvention, rejuvenation within both parties. Perhaps they will succeed in turning over a new page, opening up that very “new chapter” that everyone is talking about, that literal “turning point” – away from the dead end that they have walked into.
Interesting times ahead of us.
Appendix / results in a nutshell:
Bavaria and Hesse: Regional election results with strong implications for the whole country
In Bavaria, Germany’s economic powerhouse, the home base of corporate giants such as Allianz, BMW or Siemens, the previously hegemonic CSU still finished first, but with only 37,2% of the vote, and the SPD with 9,7% – only half their previous result. Both parties suffered a humiliating loss of over 10% compared to the election in 2013. The Greens and the AfD were the biggest election winners in Bavaria, with the Greens doubling their 2013 result and becoming Bavaria’s second largest political party with 17,6% of the vote, and the AfD propelling itself to over 10% in its first Bavarian regional election.
A fortnight later, the regional election in Hesse, another wealthy and traditionally conservative state which is home to Germany’s – and Europe’s – financial center Frankfurt am Main, drew people to the polling stations. Like Bavaria, both the CDU and the SPD lost around 11% of the vote compared to the previous election in 2013. Again, the Greens and the AfD made massive gains of 8,7% and 9%, respectively. The CDU remained the largest party in Hesse with the diminished majority of 27% of the vote, followed by a tie between the Greens and the SPD with 19,8% each, the AfD with 13,5%.