Germany's future: Merkel without Merkelism

Amid all of the uncertainty of Germany's laborious search for a new government, the one certainty is that, in the end...

Posted: Jan 11, 2018 3:10 PM
Updated: Jan 11, 2018 3:10 PM

Amid all of the uncertainty of Germany's laborious search for a new government, the one certainty is that, in the end, Angela Merkel will be Chancellor again.

Yet the cornerstones of Merkel's style and principles -- described in Germany jokingly as Merkelism -- have been so eroded that the Chancellor's final term will be a feeble incarnation of the first three.

The Chancellor is greatly weakened. Fierce attacks on her person, politics and lordly bearing come not just from the opposition -- now bolstered by far-right populists -- but also from within her government and even her own party.

This may unnerve some Germans, who have grown used to the simplicities of life under Merkelism, and cause to distress the Chancellor herself, who is unused to it. But, sanguinely, it will rejuvenate politics in the republic after a long hiatus.

Merkelism is less of an ideology than the way Angela Merkel rules. While she is indisputably in charge -- even authoritarian in her command of her Cabinet and party -- she governs not with a big-picture political vision but rather as the final arbiter of differences and disputes between her ministers and the wings within her Christian Democrats.

Merkel is never hasty, waiting and testing public sentiment as long as possible before making a decision -- and then when she does, it is final, irrefutable and beyond question. "There is no alternative," Merkel says, which until now much of the German public and her conservative party have taken her word, and dutifully fallen in line.

Another tenet of Merkelism is that there is no alternative to Merkel herself. This applies to the country -- indeed her own party, the Christian Democratic Union, which has no rival of its size -- but also within the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Over the years, Merkel has ruthlessly eliminated one (usually male) contender after another, leaving her without a challenger -- or successor -- in the party. This is why, no matter her diminished popularity and clumsiness in forming a government, Merkel will be the next Chancellor as surely as she is the current one.

But today is not like the aftermath of the 2009 or 2013 votes, when both Merkel and Merkelism were as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. The Chancellor and her party crawled away from the autumn 2017 vote badly battered: chalking up the CDU's worst showing since its first election in 1949, the dawn of the republic.

The CDU/CSU's 32.8% tally was down almost 10% from 2013 (41.5%) -- and much worse than the numbers alone, for the first time in postwar Germany, a xenophobic nationalist party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, roared into the Bundestag with 12.6% of the vote.

Much of the AfD's support had shifted over from the Christian Democrats' right wing, which has been profoundly unhappy with the conservative Chancellor's more liberal turns.

Despite her diminished standing, Merkel (who else?) led the first post-vote coalition talks in October and November between four parties -- one of the few possible coalition options in light of the CDU/CSU's miserable performance. But the old magic of Merkelism had obviously worn off: The talks collapsed after almost five weeks, with many observers blaming Merkel's hands-off approach.

Since then, as the Social Democrats deliberated over opening negotiations on forming another grand coalition, the Chancellor's popularity numbers have dropped further, and ever more Christian Democrats are fleeing the party.

If there were leadership alternatives to Merkel in either Christian Democratic party, their names would at least surface and cases be made for and against them. But not only has Merkel drained the pool of serious competitors, she has refused to groom a successor. All of the possible conservative politicos who might harbor larger ambitions are years from being ready to take over: Either they lack experience or support in the party or sufficient popularity.

Take the defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who has held three ministerial posts, but is even more liberal than Merkel, and thus wholly unsuitable for party conservatives. The conservatives' hopeful is Jens Spahn, a deputy minister dealing with finance. Yet at 37, he is young and untested in the big leagues. Moreover, a gay person with a loud mouth isn't what Germany's Christian Conservatives had hoped for after languishing for so many years under Merkel.

In the next administration, as well as in the CDU party structures, Merkel is going to have to give figures such as Spahn meaningful posts that come with real political power. By 2019 or 2020 at the latest, she will probably have to hand over party leadership to a junior colleague, which would at least make her preference for a successor clear. But the party as a whole will vote on it, and she can expect the knives to come out and the warfare to be fierce.

Moreover, many right-wingers in her CDU and the arch-conservative CSU have signaled the definitive end of their grudging acceptance of Merkel's lurch to the center, which they blame for enabling the far-right AfD to enter the Bundestag.

The CSU, which faces elections in Bavaria in the fall, remains adamantly opposed to Merkel's immigration policies, insisting that they must be much harder on family reunion, and strictly limit refugee entries and all kinds of immigration.

Flying in the face of a conservative uprising, the Social Democrats, if they rejoin a grand coalition, intend to stake out robust left-wing positions and drive them forward with a vigor that distance their party from Merkel and conservatives.

The Social Democratic Party has underscored that it will not suffer the further deterioration of its profile by Merkel further encroaching on its turf -- another aspect of Merkelism. The grand coalitions of the past will look warm and fuzzy compared with the next one -- if it gets that far.

And complicating everything, the AfD -- which heaps abuse on Merkel, the European Union and the euro, along with Germany's perceived political correctness -- will be the biggest opposition party in parliament if the Social Democratic Party is in government. This gives it a prized perch from which to hammer Merkel from the far right -- a new, uncomfortable phenomenon in the Bundestag.

All of this will make Merkel's fourth term knottier and more tenuous than any before it, which will also sap her power to set German priorities in EU reform and in global affairs in general -- at a time when leadership and moderate conservatism are more critical than ever.

But another element of Merkelism that observers shouldn't forget: Merkel is at her most savvy when embattled and underestimated. Until now, when she's taken off the gloves, she's won.

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