After sixteen years in power, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) may be facing its own Dunkirk. In two regional elections, Merkel’s party suffered two decisive defeats on Sunday in the run-up to federal elections in September that will decide the next chancellor of Germany. Not only Merkel will step down in September, but her party may also find itself ousted from power.
The state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate suggest that a traffic-light—or red, green, yellow—coalition could emerge at the federal level between the Social Democrats, the Green party, and the Free Democrats. The CDU’s share of the vote declined by 3.6 in the former state and 4.6 percent in the latter. “It is possible to govern Germany without the CDU/CSU being in government. That message is now firmly in place,” said Social Democrat leader Olaf Scholz on Sunday. For the first time in German history, the Greens, who have eclipsed the Social Democrats, could occupy the chancellery. The Greens currently participate in coalition governments in eleven out of sixteen states. Both the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats scored well in the state elections. For the Free Democrats, who were left for dead after they failed to make the 5 percent hurdle in federal elections in 2013, the opportunity to once again play kingmaker, as they have for decades, would likely be irresistible. The last time the Free Democrats made common cause with the Social Democrats was with the doughty Helmut Schmidt, whom they abandoned in 1982 during the crisis over the Euro-missiles. The result was that the Free Democrats governed together with Helmut Kohl. In a coalition with the Greens and the Social Democrats, the classically liberal Free Democrats would be the most conservative party in the American sense, pushing for low tax rates and personal freedoms.
For the Christian Democrats, the Bundestag election in September could hardly look more daunting. A squabble is breaking out in the party over whether Armin Laschet, who was newly anointed the leader of the party, should also be its candidate for chancellor or if it should look elsewhere. The head of the sister party of the CDU, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, has its own possible candidate—Markus Soeder, the minister-president of Bavaria. Andreas Klurth contends that “Soeder, unlike Laschet, has a knack for being likable and jocular while also getting confrontational when the occasion calls for it. As a campaigner and politician he’s the tougher and wittier of the two.” The problem is that history is against Soeder. The last two candidates from Bavaria, Franz-Josef Strauss and Edmund Stoiber, both flopped at the national level. At a moment when Germany appears to be moving left, a candidate from Bavaria might compound rather than ease the difficulties that the Christian Democrats are currently experiencing.
Indeed, the twin state elections suggest that moving to the right would not serve as an elixir for the CDU’s ailments. The far-right Alternative for Germany also scored quite badly in both elections. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, the party’s share of the vote declined by 5 percent and 4.1 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate. The party has been wracked by infighting between its various political wings, not to mention the subsidence of the immigration issue. Instead, it is the coronavirus pandemic that has created fresh upheaval in German politics as the failure of the Christian Democrats to prevent, or even mitigate, a third wave has badly dented their popularity.
It increasingly looks as though Merkel, who remains personally popular in Germany, has timed her exit perfectly. The former East German scientist who rose to power as a protégé of Kohl before turning on him has all along displayed an uncanny ability to promote her own fortunes. But her own political party? Not so much.
Merkel not only jettisoned one conservative principle after another in her quest to remain in office, but also repeatedly destroyed any potential rivals. Now, as Merkel prepares to say auf Wiedersehen to the political scene, her once-proud party is descending into feuding, backbiting and intrigue. Merkel’s final bequest to Germany may have been to pave the path for the Green party to run it.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.