German chancellor Angela Merkel sent shockwaves through global politics and economics yesterday when she announced her decision to step down as head of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Although she proclaimed her desire to stay on as chancellor through 2021, when her term would normally end, the move makes her a lame duck who may not survive two more years. This opens what is likely to be a brutal and ideologically fraught battle to succeed her within Germany, and leaves a gaping hole in European politics.
Even by the stable standards of German politics, Merkel’s tenure is remarkable; she has chaired the party for 18 years and been chancellor for 14 of them. If she is able to finish out her term, she will be tied (with Helmut Kohl, her CDU mentor and predecessor) for longest-serving post-World War II chancellor.
The decline of Merkel’s party, and the even steeper fall in popularity of its coalition partners, have had pundits predicting her fall for months now. Even so, the timing of her announcement was a surprise. The CDU and its partners have taken a bad beating in the last two regional elections, including Sunday’s contest in Hesse (CDU won 27.9 percent of the vote, a 10 percentage point drop from the last election in 2013). Yet, both times CDU has done slightly better than expected and managed to hang onto state-level offices. It remains Germany’s most popular party by a significant margin, and no obvious successor to Merkel is waiting in the wings.
Perhaps that is exactly why Merkel chose this moment, in an effort to leave on her own terms and even shape the battle for the next CDU leader. In the hours after her announcement, three candidates signaled they would run to replace her — Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, perceived to be a Merkel protegee; Jens Spahn, Merkel’s fiercest critic from the right in the current Cabinet; and Friedrich Merz, whom Merkel forced from party leadership more than a decade ago.
Although Germany faces major economic and geopolitical choices in the years ahead, the choice of a party successor seems likely to turn instead on elites’ judgement of Merkel herself — and the ways she sought to shift the party’s definition of conservative on issues from environmentalism to same-sex marriage to, above all, immigration and refugees. If pro- and anti-Merkel forces deadlock, a caretaker leader could emerge — which might make it more likely that Merkel can serve out her term, but less likely that the party can reverse its steady losses of voters to the far-right Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) and to the Greens, who are increasingly supplanting the collapsing center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The internal fighting over social and cultural issues is really a fight over what it means to be a German conservative, in a party whose current slogan is simply “Die Mitte” — the Middle.
The question of how — and even whether — Merkel can be replaced in European politics is even murkier. For much of the last two decades, she defined both the promise and the limits of European possibility. Her biography — raised in Communist East Germany by a pastor father who chose to take his family there to serve after the war; trained in science, not politics — seemed to validate all the choices made by the West after the Cold War. Politically, she combined deeply conservative economic policies and a skepticism of Moscow, with support for European political integration and a Europe growing more culturally diverse and open. That stance, which Europeans would call classically liberal, seemed to promise the continent’s transition to a unique superpower status — federated, peaceful, even demilitarizing. But after the 2007-8 economic crisis, renewed confrontations with Russia, the stresses of ISIS attacks, and the refugee crisis, that status began to recede — and more and more European citizens questioned whether Merkel’s vision for a wider Europe benefited them in their own homes.
Both Germany and Europe are now groping for what replaces that vision. Europeans — along with Washington, and oddly, even Moscow — have grown very used to Merkel’s steady hand, however they felt about her steering. That period of predictability is now winding down.