It was not the way German Chancellor Angela Merkel thought she would be spending, the beginning of her fourth term in office. After 13 years in power, her political coalition is unraveling and there is little that can be done, to reverse the downward spiral. As head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) since 2000, there are those within her own party, that believe the political endgame for Merkel has finally arrived.
Germany is doing financially well, the federal budget has a surplus, and the trade surpluses continue to mount. The economy is growing and unemployment is at a generational low. That the national government is rapidly declining in popular approval, cannot therefore be based on economic matters alone.
The state election in Hesse, was the latest humiliation. Hesse is home to Germany’s financial capital, Frankfurt am Main. It is also home to the European Central Bank. The state is among the wealthiest in Germany and joblessness is lower, than most other regions.
The elections in Hesse are a further evidence of what Germans are calling schicksalswahl, or vote of destiny.
Hesse should be a place where the CDU does well. In fact, in the last state election, the party was able to garner 38.3% of the electorate. The exit polls from the election on October 28,show the conservatives coming in at just 27.9%, less than a third of the total.
Merkel party loyalist, state prime minister Volker Bouffier in power since 2010, may soon be replaced.
Despite campaigning on four different occasions in Hesse for this election,Angela Merkel may now well witness the conservatives being totally removed, from the governing coalition.
The official reasons for the dismal results in Hesse are the cost and availability of housing, concerns over education, but as elsewhere, the underlining controversy is over immigration.
Support for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the CDU coalition partner at the national level, also suffered a major loss. The exit poll for this latest election, shows a drop in support from 30.7% to 19.9%. It is the party’s worst result in a western state since 1946.
As has been the case elsewhere for state elections, the traditional parties of CDU and SPD are losing support to the far right AfD (Alternative for Germany) and the Green Party.
The left leaning Green Party, has surged into third place in the Hesse election, with near 19.5% of the total vote. The AfD will now enter the state legislature for the first time ever,now having the support of 12% of the electorate.
The center-right FDP (Free Democratic Party) the traditional coalition partner in the previous century, which had been practically wiped out on the national level, is experiencing a slight recovery. However, it is still below 10%, in most regions of the country.
For decades, control of the government would alternate between the CDU and the SPD, with the FDP playing the role of kingmaker.
This has changed dramatically in the 21st century. In addition to the aforementioned, there is also the far left Linke, which has also remained below 10% support.
These splinter parties make it next to impossible, for the larger parties (Volksparteien) to govern without forming alliances with these smaller parties at the state level.
Chancellor Merkel has never really recovered, from her party’s poor performance in the 2017 federal election, despite the CDU remaining the largest party overall.
There are many political pundits within her own party, that will admit privately, most of the present difficulties, can be partially attributed to the fateful decision on immigration. The Chancellor decided to accept over 1 million migrants and refugees in 2015 and 2016 from Africa and the Middle East.
The decision to open German and therefore European borders, to these newcomers over time, proved to be an inexpedient decision on her part.
These new entrants into Germany, often lack job skills or technical expertise, that would allow them to be employed in the short term. Languages can be learned in a relatively short period of time, but the lack of meaningful education, will take far longer to achieve.
The cultural differences are another major challenge. The previous large scale Muslim immigration into Germany a generation ago, was from Turkey. These guest workers were on the whole, far more secular in the practice of their religion. In addition, their arrival was organized and spread out over time.
The elections in wealthy Hesse, was only the latest blow. The middle of October vote in Bavaria, an industrial powerhouse, saw the conservative sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) suffer a huge loss.
It is the first time since 1957, that the party will no longer have an absolute majority, in the state with Germany’s second highest GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
The CSU received just over 37% of the votes cast. This is more than 10% lower, than the election held in 2013. This will now force the creation of a coalition government.
The Greens moved up to capture 17.5%, making them the second largest political party in Bavaria, a state of 13 million inhabitants.
The Social Democrats took a devastating hit, falling to a new low of just 9.7%.
Along with the Greens, the winners in the Bavarian elections are the right leaning Free Voters (FW) a fairly new independent party, that won 11.6% of the electorate. The AfD was the final beneficiary of the election results in Bavaria. Coming in at 10%, the party is now the fourth largest in Bavaria.
Alarmingly for traditional politicians in Germany, the controversial AfD will now have representation in 15 out of the 16 state legislatures.
The CSU was hammered politically, from both the right and the left. First voters abandoned the party for AfD and FW, due to the unpopularity of the national governments immigration policy, over the last few years. As a member of the ruling coalition, it was held partially responsible, for Chancellor Merkel’s decision to let in large numbers of migrants.
By recently trying to incorporate some of the rhetoric and policy positions of the populist AfD, the CSU it seems, has also alienated more moderate voters in the middle.
By stirring up a opposition against Merkel, over the more liberal national immigration policy Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader and German Interior minister, alienated some voters further to the left, as well.
This clearly has politically benefited the Greens.
The CSU is likely to appeal to the FW party, in creating a new state government. The leadership of the CSU is now far more unlikely, to move in an effort to bailout the declining fortunes of Chancellor Merkel.
Chancellor Merkel wanted to maintain, her present political course. After 18 years at the top of the CDU power structure, she saw no reason for a change in direction. At the end of October, the reality of the changing political landscape, finally forced her to announce, that she would not run for re-election as the leader of her party in December.
The problem for Merkel is that her biggest critics, now reside within her own political party.
Merkel was praised by many centrists and leftists, for her humane gesture to open the borders, during the migration crisis in 2015. However, at the same time, it began the alienation of her supporters within her own party.
The Chancellor grew up in Communist East Germany, so her response to borders and refugees was regrettably, more based on her personal feelings and emotions. She vividly remembers a time, where the government aggressively controlled, the movement of people and rigidly enforced the border.
The election results in Hesse, has clearly been linked to Chancellor Merkel. Prime Minister Bouffier of Hesse himself, put the blame on the national government in Berlin.
Merkel for her part, still wants to stay in the Chancellorship, until the end of her term in office.
A close confidant and supposed successor to Merkel, CDU Secretary General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer affectionately known as AKK, has already announced she will run for the presidency of the CDU. The party leadership at this point it seems, has decided to remain tone death.
The conservatives of the party, so long ignored on a number of other key issues, are insisting on a shift to the right. They want a return, to more traditional values and far stricter asylum rules for migrants.
Friedrich Merz, a previous inter-party opponent of Chancellor Merkel may well return to prominence. He was once the party chairman and then deputy chairman of the CDU, in the national German legislature, known as the Bundestag.
Merz was sidelined by Chancellor Merkel over a decade ago, for being too conservative.
Many stalwart more conservative CDU members, have been critical of a growing list of Merkel initiatives, that they collectively deem as failures. These would include the financial bailout of Greece, the overly expensive, government directed push to renewable energy, the rise of AfD, Brexit and most importantly, the refugee crisis.
Merkel herself has already begun, the retreat on open migration. The number of new arrivals to Germany has fallen dramatically, this year. It is partly due to tighter German asylum rules and stricter borders controls across Europe.
The biggest concern among the CDU membership, is that a change in leadership at the top, will be insufficient to mollify German voters. A growing segment of the electorate, may at last be ready, for a change in government at the national level.
Merkel over the years, has moved the conservative CDU/CSU coalition, ever closer to the center. Part of this leftward shift became necessary, once the conservatives no longer had the numbers in the Bundestag alone, to maintain political control.
If AKK can succeed to the presidency of the CDU, Merkel will find it easier to maintain control of her coalition. However, if the more conservative Merz is successful in his bid, her hold on power becomes more tenuous.
If the CDU moves too far to the right, it will precipitate the breakup of the present coalition, with the Social Democrats. The SPD is already smarting, with the ever downward support from the German electorate, at large. A dissolution of the coalition at this juncture, no doubt would force new elections, thus ending the Merkel era.
She still refuses to contemplate, a possible political alliance with the AfD, considering the party to be far too right wing, for her sensibilities. Yet, the growing restrictions on migration, make that move far more plausible. It would allow for a backup coalition plan, in case that would become necessary.
Chancellor Merkel insists she remains uniquely qualified, to solve the many pressing issues that are presently confronting, both Germany and Europe. As the longest serving leader among the major industrial powers, she certainly has standing to make such a claim.
However, now that her retirement from public life has been announced, every day in office will bring her closer to the exit. Although 2021, may seem to be a distant date, she will inevitably become a political lame duck.
Of course, the most pressing issue for Merkel now, is to survive the present electoral crisis. It will take every bit of her political acumen and skill to achieve that. Although one would be foolhardy to discount her ability to overcome the present debacle, there is no doubt that her days in power, are now numbered.