What a springtime for Germany’s conservatives this fall has been. The Christian Democratic Union, the leading centre-right party, should be suffering: After months of infighting with other conservatives, followed by steep losses in state elections, its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, announced that she was stepping down from her post as the party’s longtime chairwoman. Instead, it is enjoying an internal revival. Merkel’s decision has set off a race to replace her — three contenders will vie to head the party at a conference in Hamburg on Dec 8.
And for once, the race is about more than power, politics and personalities — it is about ideas. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a protege of Merkel, has a slight lead in the polls. But she is being strongly opposed by Jens Spahn, a younger stalwart conservative who believes that the party has moved too far to the centre, and Friedrich Merz, who wants the party to embrace more of a free-market platform. The energy generated by the race has made Merkel’s situation clear. Though she won re-election last year, it is getting harder to imagine her staying in the chancellorship until 2021. She has done Germany a lot of service in her 13 years as the country’s leader.
Her final act of service should be to step down as chancellor in the next few months. For over a year now, German conservatives have been coming to grips with the intellectual dead end into which Merkel led them, and the country. Seemingly stalwart during times of calm, Merkel has shown a depressing lack of talent to speak convincingly to her people at a time when Germans are increasingly at odds with each other. The refugee crisis, the rise of the far right, growing inequality — on the most pressing issues of the last five years, Merkel has been complacent. Once a great manager of problems caused by others, Merkel has failed to show the same capacity for solving problems arising from her own decisions.
Perhaps, years ago, she might have. But while the radical rightwing populist party Alternative for Germany grew stronger, even outflanking Merkel’s party in her home state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, the chancellor’s erstwhile best quality — stoicism — has flipped into its unhealthy cousin: leadership fatigue. If the chancellor had invested similar energy into the handling of the refugee crisis after 2015 as she had put into the handling of the euro crisis seven years before, Germany certainly would not have ended up as the polarised society it is today.
When it came to addressing domestic issues, hers was a populism of silence. The latest example of this public diplomacy laziness was the way Merkel dealt with the events this summer in the eastern city of Chemnitz. In late August, a 35-year-old local man was stabbed to death by an asylum seeker. The event sparked protests by right-wing extremists and rioting. A Jewish-owned restaurant was attacked, and police later arrested members of a suspected right-wing terrorist cell with possible links to the events. Yet Merkel waited almost three months before she paid a visit to Chemnitz. When she finally decided to meet locals last week, one citizen summed up her comments by comparing them to way the last leader of communist East Germany, Erich Honecker, had spoken to the people: “Just blah blah.”
Merkel similarly stumbled over her government’s decision to endorse the United Nations Global Compact for Migration, which calls on signatories to help migrants integrate into their societies while also improving conditions in the migrants’ home countries. It is a defensible position, but also one that, Merkel’s advisers said, could easily be twisted and exploited by populists (and one that even some Christian Democrats disagreed with). Rather than using the position as an opportunity to rally her party and the country, Merkel did next to nothing to explain her agreement to the document. Predictably, the Alternative for Germany Party ignited a fiery debate in the German Parliament on the issue, leaving members of Merkel’s party to struggle, leaderless.
In a rare and short outburst of passion in the Bundestag this week, Merkel did give the right answer to the AfD: It was pure nationalism, she said, to believe Germany could go it alone on the migrant question, whereas it was patriotic to create a win-win situation with other countries. But her intervention in the debate was symptomatic of her overall oratorical record: way too little, far too late. Why does Merkel fail to see that unusual times need unusually good rhetoric? Why does she not offer decisive leadership when voters turn to radicals, who offer easy answers? One reason might be that the chancellor has become a victim of an unusually broad popularity; for almost a decade, she was hailed worldwide as the de facto leader of Europe.
At home, she enjoyed a cozy relationship with the two groups who should normally be holding her to account, the press and the centre-left Social Democrats, who have spent most of her term as the junior partner in a coalition with the Christian Democrats. During the euro crisis, then later during the Ukraine conflict and the refugee crisis, almost all the important media outlets cheered Merkel. While the applause was mostly justified in substance, it was unhealthy for the structures of democracy. It left the impression that the establishment, whether in media or politics, thought alike, an impression that over time strengthened the political fringe.
As more and more Germans vented their discontent on social networks, as the country got louder and louder, the chancellor kept her voice low, furthering the notion that she just shrugged at critics. It’s a common secret in Berlin that Merkel felt obligated to stand for another term in the last year’s general elections. Had it not been for the election of Donald Trump and the growing threat to multilateralism, she might have preferred to stand down sooner. Noble as her motives might have been, a sense of duty is not a sufficient motivation to run a country. Others in her party — first and foremost Kramp-Karrenbauer, whom Merkel would certainly prefer as her successor — have the passion, the prudence and the talent for communication the country needs know. Merkel can feel safe leaving the ship.