“It would be a joke of history,” said Angela Merkel in Monday afternoon’s press conference, “to break up the coalition after a little over six months, just because the current government has not managed to work in a way that does not repel the people.” And people do feel repelled. In an election held in the state of Hesse last Sunday, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its federal coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), together lost around 20 percent of their support. If fresh national elections were held tomorrow, the CDU and SPD would not even reach 50 percent of the vote combined. Germany’s traditional mass parties are eroding, as voters defect in droves to the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the Greens.
In response to the Hesse vote, Merkel has decided to give up the office of party chairwoman, moreover announcing that this will be her last term as chancellor. She has now officially begun a departure process that many had long been waiting for. Indeed, one can feel a sense of history being made, not least given that Merkel is Europe’s de facto leader.
Seeking to quash rumors that she may now indeed take up a position in the European Union itself, the Chancellor clarified that she will make no such move. She will leave a void not only in her own CDU party, but — within two years at the latest — a highly polarized, post-Brexit EU.
Merkel tried to make the announcement quietly, saying that it was about clearing a path for the party’s transition. But the amount of division and uncertainty in the country’s party system means that her move may end up being more abrupt, and make a bigger splash, than she wanted. For the people of Germany, what matters is who will follow in her place. A few front-runners have already emerged, all of whom are well-known figures from the CDU establishment. Yet each of them represents a shift to the right to one degree or another, suggesting that Merkel’s centrist rule will soon be a thing of the past.
The Woman With the Initials
To most observers, the most promising candidacy appears to be that of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The CDU secretary general is widely regarded as the secret “crown princess,” even if Merkel avoided naming a favorite during her announcement. Kramp-Karrenbauer was only recently brought in from the state to the federal level and was immediately regarded by many as Merkel’s heir.
Anyone who imagines her a moderate Christian Democrat will soon discover otherwise: “AKK”, as she is called by her parliamentary colleagues, attracted attention this August by calling for the reestablishment of mandatory military conscription after its suspension in 2011. In a discussion with the German journalist Anne Will a day before Merkel’s announcement, AKK spoke about the need to “protect creation,” i.e., prevent abortions, and years before made stirred controversy by suggesting that legalizing gay marriage could open the door to group marriages or even marriages between relatives. Most recently she spoke in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, lumping together the “social populism” of the AfD, Die Linke, and even the Social Democrats, and is in favor of reforming the market economy by bolstering the role of individual responsibility. This includes, for example, regulating the housing crisis not through state intervention but even more private competition.
Spahn: The Right Wing’s Ambitious Face
Health Minister Jens Spahn was personally in attendance when Merkel submitted her resignation plan in a party meeting. The party right’s attack dog was appointed to the cabinet to bring him into line. Yet this did not stop him from commenting on sociopolitical issues outside his own brief, stating publicly that recipients of the reduced public assistance known as “Hartz IV” were not condemned to poverty. He claims that the defenders of abortion rights care more about the welfare of animals than about unborn human life and called the demonstrators at the anti-G20 protests “left-wing fascists.”
He is expected to receive support from the CDU youth, parts of the Seniors’ Union, and also from decidedly conservative circles such as the signatories to the “Conservative Manifesto,” which he also signed.
Merz: He’s Back
The political return of Friedrich Merz, chairman of the CDU parliamentary group in the early 2000s, came as a surprise. Once Merkel’s fierce opponent, after she ousted him he went into retirement and then apparently waited fourteen years for her resignation. Merz is known for his economically liberal, anti-worker, socially conservative politics. He was the one who introduced the assimilationist concept of German Leitkultur (a “guiding culture” based on a set of values and traditions that immigrants should adopt) into the discourse back in 2000.
As a dashing entrepreneur who wants to cut taxes for “high performers,” Merz is an almost cartoonish embodiment of financial capitalism’s neoliberal style. He is currently CEO of the investment-management company BlackRock, which participated as a shadow bank in the so-called “Cum-Ex” dividends stripping affair. This scandal, which involved defrauding national governments for multiple tax reimbursements, was a case of organized tax fraud on a massive scale.
Merz has also chaired the powerful Atlantik-Brücke group since 2009, a networking association of German and American business and political elites. In ruling-class conflicts over a possible shift towards protectionist and nationalist rhetoric, Merz is clearly positioned in the opposing neoliberal “internationalist” camp. He recently wrote a call for European solidarity with Jürgen Habermas and others, arguing not only for a European army but also for German financial contributions to balance out disparities between regions. Parts of the CSU and the Seniors’ Union have already expressed support for his candidacy.
Reflecting the general trend of the country, three of the likely candidates lean to the right, but in different ways. With Kramp-Karrenbauer, Spahn, or Merz, the CDU would take a more openly conservative line against left-wing policies on social questions. Spahn and Merz stand for policies similar to those of conservative Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who governs in coalition with the even more reactionary FPÖ: namely, a staunch economic liberalism that is quite open to the far right, though Merz’s radical neoliberal agenda and aspirations for EU reform resemble the model of Emmanuel Macron. Spahn, the youngest of the three, has avoided polemics recently and kept himself out of foreign policy issues entirely, though this ultimately may reduce his chances as he no longer stands out as an international and controversial figure. Merz, on the other hand, has already been stylized as Christian Democracy’s “savior” by the German press for representing a balance between liberal economic policies and traditional values.
Contrary to the idea that Spahn or Merz could close down the right flank, they would probably just contribute to the normalization of right-wing discourses in Germany and provide an opportunity to the “national-social” wing of the AfD to fill this space even more. Who comes out on top will depend on how they stage their appearances in the coming weeks and the support of their inner circles in the background.
The centrist policies cultivated by Merkel could, accordingly, be shifted more or less to the right by the three likely candidates, particularly around the questions of migration, family values, and social policies.
The delegates at the party congress in December, however, will also have to wonder whether Spahn or Merz would be strategically viable given the defection of voters to the Greens. Among some bourgeois voters, the openly right-wing positions of CSU leader Horst Seehofer — who, unlike Merkel, has not yet said anything about resigning — seem to have had a deterrent effect; these voters prefer modern, centrist conservatism and pragmatic governance, as the Greens have cultivated in recent years.
Kramp-Karrenbauer would certainly offer a counterbalance to this trend. She could deflect the AfD threatening to become the strongest force in the elections in the eastern German states next year with her record of conservative values and would therefore appear to be a promising candidate. But just a few weeks ago Ralph Brinkhaus, a figure close to Spahn, was elected the CDU’s new parliamentary group leader, in an offensive directed against a Merkel-loyalist. Either candidate can hope for victory.
What is clear is that should Spahn or Merz prevail, the SPD will have to pull the plug on the grand coalition. Both candidates would shift power relations within the CDU dramatically and position themselves as strong candidates for the Chancellorship. This, in turn, would make it almost impossible for the SPD to push through any social policies in the coalition agreement and would thus most likely lead to their departure. New elections would be likely in this scenario, and Merkel’s quiet departure would become unintentionally turbulent — not only for herself, but for Germany and perhaps all of Europe.