The end of the Merkel era: What comes after?

28 January 2021 /

5 min

2021 means a “super election year” for Germany: in addition to the Bundestag elections, regional and in some cases local elections will be held. It is not only the COVID-19 pandemic, already complicating candidates nominations and party campaigns, that makes the elections special. Indeed, the federal elections constitute a break insofar as Angela Merkel, German chancellor since 2005, will not stand for re-election for a fifth term in office. A good opportunity to take both a look back at her years of chancellorship and look ahead to the upcoming elections.

The end of an era

2021 will mark the 16th and last year of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship. No other German chancellor except Helmut Kohl, known as “Chancellor of German Unity”, has held office for such a long time. Nevertheless, even after four consecutive times in office Merkel remains a mystery to many Germans. She herself does not clearly define her position, as shown by one of her statements: “Sometimes I am liberal, sometimes I am conservative, sometimes I am Christian-social – and that is what the CDU is all about”. Indeed, this message reflects well Merkel’s party’s claim to remain Germany’s last people’s party, which is by no means straightforward in an increasingly individualised society.

Merkel embodies pragmatism rather than grand vision. Her restraint, thoughtfulness and policy of small steps are simultaneously interpreted positively as a willingness to compromise and negatively as a symbol of standstill. While some Germans appreciate Merkel for her calm and reasonableness, others criticise the lack of social debate during her terms in office and accuse her of not explaining her politics enough. One sentence that will certainly remain in the memory of her chancellorship more than any other is her “We can do this!”, stated during the 2015 refugee crisis. Merkel herself stands by her decision made at this critical moment. In 2015, she stressed that “If we now have to start apologising for showing a friendly face in emergency situations, then this is not my country.”

What might be the situation after the 2021 elections?

Most importantly, Merkel’s withdrawal is likely to considerably affect her own party. According to current polls, about 35% of Germans would vote for the CDU/CSU. This puts the party well ahead of the Greens, who ranks second. However, the CDU/CSU’s survey results seem to reflect Merkel’s popularity rather than the actual attractiveness of the party, meaning it could probably lose a few points after Merkel’s withdrawal. Moreover, it has not yet been decided who will take over the party’s leadership, nor who will run for chancellor for the CDU. This seems all the more important as each of the three current candidates embody very different directions within the party, so the decision is likely to affect future coalition formations.

Many eyes are currently focused on the German Greens, who seemingly are the key to the next governmental coalition. Indeed, the 2021 elections will be a special moment for the party: for the first time since their foundation in 1980, the Greens will nominate a candidate for chancellor. This can be considered as a real turning point, considering the party’s ambivalent relationship to power and government responsibility. In its first years, the party was deeply divided on the question of whether to participate in policymaking and join the government or remain in fundamental opposition. Furthermore, in a way, regular Fridays for Future protests remind the Greens of their own past. Today, the party emerging from the new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s supports the climate activists. At the same time, however, the Greens are under pressure from parts of the Fridays for Future movement who criticise that the party does not clearly commit to the 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal. The Greens’ motto “radical and realistic” reflects this balancing act between a political line that meets the demands of the climate activists and one which allows the party to be electable for broader sections of society. As a consequence, the green camp, long perceived as united, seems to be becoming increasingly fragmented. For example, a number of German smaller parties, which advocate the 1.5°C goals, have recently founded the “united4bundestag” initiative to jointly pass the 5% electoral threshold.

Turning to the other side of the party spectrum, the radical-right AfD managed to enter the federal Parliament for the first time as a result of the 2017 elections. Since its founding in 2013, the party has been torn between trying to pass itself as a “middle-class conservative” force or remaining a radical movement party. Recently, the party has been making headlines almost exclusively through internal disputes. Rather than content and programmatic orientation, these seem to be about personal matters. Thus, an AfD regional chairman, on his withdrawal from politics, declared that the party had degenerated into a “reservoir of egocentrics and pseudo-patriots”. What is certain is that the AfD will not mourn the end of the “chancellor dictator’s” period, as the party’s chairman formulated it in 2016 with regard to Merkel’s migration policy. Currently, the party is trying to take advantage of the corona crisis and to reach out to new voters that have not supported them so far. Through participation in street protests and also through social media, AfD politicians attempt to connect with corona deniers and climate sceptics.

A significant election with many questions still open

Even though not characterised by the same degree of polarisation and emotionality as in the United States, the 2021 German elections will certainly represent a meaningful moment. Due to the proportional representation system, Germany’s political culture is marked by the search for compromises. However, this should not prevent mainstream parties from addressing controversial topics and not leave it to the AfD. The party conference of the CDU in January 2021, where the new party leader and a possible candidate for chancellor will finally be elected, may shed some light on what the situation could look like after Angela Merkel’s 16 years of chancellorship.

Eileen Böhringer, BA3 Human and Social Sciences

This article was first published in the 33rd issue of the magazine. Read the entire issue here.

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