“Time to start a new chapter”:  uncertainty looms as the Merkel era comes to an end 

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“It is time to start a new chapter” declared Angela Merkel, announcing her decision not to run for re-election as chancellor in 2021 and to stand down as chair of the centre-right CDU at the party’s conference in December. A chancellor for 13 years and a CDU chairwoman since 2000, Merkel has been largely perceived as a figure of stability on the European stage. While not entirely unexpected, the announcement heralds the end of an era, with an uncertain future ahead for both Germany and Europe as a whole. 

The decision has been triggered by CDU’s dismal performance in the regional elections on Sunday where the party’s share of the vote fell by 11 percentage points to 27% in the state of Hesse. Two weeks earlier, CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, likewise suffered significant losses in an election in Bavaria.

The unstable political climate in Germany is part of the wider European trend towards polarised political standpoints, with an intense struggle between the centrists and the emerging far-right. The pattern is all too familiar as the tensions of Brexit and the presidential election in France resonate still in the rising wave of nationalism seen in Europe and beyond. The major gains by AfD in German elections eerily parallel the rise of National Front in France and the populist coalition of the League and the Five Star Movement in Italy. The rhetoric of such nationalist parties across Europe is strikingly similar: a strong anti-immigration stance, skepticism towards the euro, and protectionist economic policies. 

“There can be little doubt that giving up her post as party leader already undermined her authority, creating a power vacuum at home and on the European stage.” 

In light of this, it is of little surprise that the refugee crisis is seen by many as the primary cause of Angela Merkel’s downfall. Exalted for her humanitarian approach initially, Merkel’s popularity waned as Germany struggled to cope with a wave of more than a million migrants, fleeing the conflict in the Middle East. 

Now that Merkel has announced her expiry date, Germany faces a number of potential successors preparing to wrestle for party leadership. One of the main contenders, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is a moderate who shares much of Merkel’s political ideology and is a candidate of continuity who can facilitate a smooth transition of power. There are, however, challengers from the right such as Friedrich Merz, a conservative who used to be head of the CDU’s parliamentary group, and Jens Spahn, the health minister and an economic liberal who has been vocal in his criticism of Merkel’s immigration policy. Merkel stated that she is not going to endorse a candidate in the upcoming elections, and it is yet unclear who will succeed “Europe’s Iron Lady”. 

“The rhetoric of nationalist parties across Europe is strikingly similar… it reflects a world that increasingly views populism as a panacea for its socio-economic problems.”

There can be little doubt that to give up her post as party leader would undermine her authority, both at home and on the European stage. Already, Merkel’s decision to continue in her role as chancellor has been censured by those who believe that quitting her post as party leader while staying on as chancellor would create an uncertain political climate. Merkel herself admitted that it is a “risk” and she had previously stated that the two jobs are inseparable. That, of course, leaves the possibility of a snap election which could coerce Merkel to leave her post as chancellor sooner. Whether a snap election would occur primarily depends on whether the coalition between CDU, CSU and SDP will remain intact. Since the announcement on Monday is, to a great extent, Merkel’s response to the incessant infighting in her coalition, her future and that of Germany largely rest on the parties’ willingness to compromise. For now, one can only speculate and hope that stability will prevail.