Merkel Remains in Control, but Problems are Looming on the Horizon

Dan Hough

University of Sussex

Dr. Dan Hough is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.

Angela Merkel has experienced a challenging 18 months.  Events of the past week nonetheless indicate that she remains firmly in control of German political life.  Eleven years is an awfully long time to be chancellor, but she’s showing no signs of wanting to step aside. Indeed, Merkel indicated on Sunday, November 20, that she plans to continue to lead the CDU, and with that—if all goes well—the country, until 2021. Germany’s partners will be breathing a sigh of relief.  They should be careful what they wish for. Merkel’s leadership is, at the moment, a no brainer for all concerned.  But what comes next?

Two long-standing questions were answered in Germany this week. First, it became clear that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the widely respected foreign minister, will replace federal president Joachim Gauck as president when he steps down in February 2017. Second, Angela Merkel confirmed what everyone already knew: she will again seek to be chancellor when Germany next goes to the polls in September 2017.

In terms of the presidency, Steinmeier was not Merkel’s ideal candidate. She can nonetheless live with him as a Plan B (or indeed Plan C or D, as the case was).  He has a statesman-like air about him and has proven largely unflappable as Germany has tried to solve a whole series of international crises.  The fact that Merkel has had to agree to replace Gauck with an SPD member (Steinmeier) indicates that there was no CDU candidate around whom other parties could or would coalesce. This is clearly a tactical defeat for the chancellor.  However, it is also a strong signal that the current grand coalition of CDU and SPD is, even with an election campaign on the horizon, likely to come back together in the Autumn and govern Germany for four more years.

SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel may claim that Steinmeier being president is evidence of the influence of the Social Democrats on German politics, but his position still remains weak. The SPD has been able to exert considerable influence on policy during its time in government, but that is very unlikely to see the SPD poll enough votes to lead the next government.  The latest opinion polls all make worrying reading for the Social Democrats; Forschungsgruppe Wahlen has the CDU 12 points ahead of the SPD, while Infratest Dimap (9 points), Forsa (12 points), and Emnid (9 points) all give the center-right a clear advantage.

Merkel for Chancellor!

For her part, Angela Merkel has confirmed that she does indeed intend to lead the CDU in to the next election. This move is likely to signal an unofficial end to the unseemly public sniping between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, over the issue of immigration.  Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader, has indicated that he is keen to support Merkel, and that the key thing for Germany is to ensure that the CDU/CSU remains as strong as possible in the federal parliament.  Expect the occasional strategic public disagreement, but that is likely to be to let conservative voters who don’t live in Bavaria (and have to vote for the CDU as opposed to the CSU) know that the CDU/CSU is a broad spectrum appealing to all of their interests.  Merkel, despite a difficult year, also remains popular in the country at large; a poll by Emnid released on Sunday revealed that 55 percent of her countrymen wanted her to remain chancellor, up from 42 percent as recently as August.

Even though the parties of the left may still theoretically gain a majority of the votes in the September election and indeed are prepared to work together in regional parliaments (such as in Thuringia and Berlin), don’t expect this to translate in to a national government.  Foreign policy differences are too great and the internal politics of such an alliance (at the national level) too thorny. Even though the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has risen to garner 10 to 12 percent of the vote in opinion polls, Germany’s party political outlook going in to the election year looks (perhaps surprisingly) steady.  There is little reason to expect that to change after September 2017.

Life after Merkel

In the longer term, however, there are two questions that remain pointedly unanswered.  First, Merkel’s CDU is very likely to win the 2017 election, but by the time 2021 arrives Merkel will have been in power for 15 years. Merkel and her party need to think about who succeeds her; as of now, there are no particularly strong candidates.  The defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, would appear to be the strongest candidate, but she doesn’t (yet) enjoy anything like the stature that Merkel does.

No budding chancellor looks particularly chancellor-like before they take on the role, but all German parties seem to be struggling with potential candidates at the moment. Merkel, in other words, needs to work on the transition to a post-Merkel order, even if the time of that transition appears to be a few years down the line.  One thing is for sure; a disorderly transition is not in Germany’s, or indeed Europe’s, interest.

Second, a(nother) Grand Coalition makes political sense, but it brings with it clear dangers. Germany is already becoming more polarized, and the rise of the AfD is just one example of how many feel cut off from the political process.  These feelings are likely to become more pronounced as centrist parties attempt to carry on as normal.  Grand coalitions, for example, largely served postwar Austria well, but ultimately they helped outsider parties—over time—sound more like courageous upstarts and less like the political extremists that some certainly were.  Merkel, in other words, has no big vision for Germany, and muddling along is unlikely to inspire the disillusioned.  She needs to be aware that this could potentially be storing up further problems for the future.

Germany, Europe, and indeed the rest of the world are arguably going to be better served by a post-2017 FRG that is led by Angela Merkel.  But Merkel can’t and won’t go on forever.  Thinking about tomorrow now subsequently won’t do anyone any harm.


Dr. Dan Hough is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.  Follow him on Twitter @thedanhough.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.