BERLIN — How the mighty have fallen. Angela Merkel, the eternal chancellor of Germany, the uncrowned queen of Europe, took refuge Monday from her partys catastrophic showing in state elections in Hesse in a tactical retreat.
Merkels calculus in assuming responsibility for her partys dismal result — announcing that she would not seek reelection as chairwoman of the CDU, nor run again for the chancellorship — seems obvious: Pull back and dig in until the end of her fourth term.
But whether she clings on to the chancellorship until the end of her term in 2021 or is taken down by party rivals before then, the Merkel era is over.
Her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) lost 11 percentage points in Hesse, a cosmic drop by German standards, coming in at 27 percent. The partys fate in the national opinion polls sharpens the disaster: The most recent survey gives the CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU 25 percent nationwide. It is a precipitous decline. The union, as the tandem is known, used to score in the mid to high forties, once even above 50 percent.
Merkels misfortune is only exceeded by the harder fall of her Social Democratic coalition partner. The SPD used to field such giants as Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt as chancellors in the 1970s and early 1980s, pocketing up to 48 percent of the vote. It is now down to 14 in the most recent poll.
But how can Merkel serve out her term heading a government that polls show has lost the confidence of the electorate?
The “grand coalition” of Christian and Social Democrats has turned into a very small one, commanding just 39 percent in recent surveys. If a general election were to take place today, it would be sent packing.
This calamity — unprecedented in post-war German history — casts doubt over the chances of success of Merkels tactical maneuver.
If she does manage to cling on until 2021, Merkel will have matched the record of her predecessor Helmut Kohl, who governed for 16 years. Only authoritarian rulers get to stay in power that long, the lonely democratic exception being Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died before completing his fourth term.
But how can Merkel serve out her term heading a government that polls show has lost the confidence of the electorate? Worse, how can she keep in check her SPD coalition partner, headed by Andrea Nahles?
SPD leader Andrea Nahles reacts as first exit polls are announced on public television during the state elections in Hesse at the SPD headquarters in Berlin, on October 28, 2018 | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images
The SPD, once the voice of a rising working class, shares the fate of so many Social Democratic parties in Europe. Italys center left has shattered, while its French counterpart has shrunk into insignificance. As industrys share of GDP has dwindled along with the old working class, so have the fortunes of the Social Democrats. These parties are also the victims of their own success. Whether on the left or right, all European parties are now committed to the munificent welfare state, and so the Social Democrats are losing their most valuable claim to popular allegiance.
Merkel, though, needs them badly to stay in power — and they may not oblige her. The left wing of the SPD believes the party can rejuvenate itself in opposition, pressing the moderate leadership to abandon Merkel. Defection, however, looks treacherous. Theres no evidence a sharp leftward turn would recapture the votes of yesteryear.
First, there is already a hard-left party in the German spectrum, the appropriately named Die Linke (the Left Party), which is good for about 10 percent of the vote. Then, there are the Greens, a semi-left shooting star sucking up 20 percent with a blend of environmentalist and welfarist policies. Whatever the SPD would eke out on the left would cost votes in the center, from where Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder vaulted into the chancellors office.
Second, the opposition gambit has been tried before, from 2009 to 2013, and it did not work. The SPD rose a bit from 23 to 25.7 percent — a far cry from the 34 scored in 2005. So the lack of power does not promise a surge in power.
Third, deserting Merkel will not necessarily bring her down. She may still be able to form an alternative coalition with the Free Democrats and the Greens, thus limping to the end of her fourth term. If that fails, Merkel could engineer snap elections. But that does not promise a shinier future for the SPD. Why would a party that has been trounced in every recent state election, as well as in the polls, suddenly rise from the ashes?
Merkels gambit may well give her three more years in office. She may be damaged and exhausted, but her strategic savvy and ruthlessness are not to be underestimated. The dozen or so intra-party rivals she has dispatched over the years are testimony to her uncanny talent for power politics.
That is the upside, shaky as it may be. The downside is obvious. Whenever the lead wolf is as wounded as is Merkel, the pack will sniff out opportunities to pounce. They might bring her down tomorrow or at the party convention in December. Or she might survive against the odds until 2021.
Either way, the age of Merkel is over. Like her towering Christian Democratic predecessors, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, she has stayed on too long, missing that magic moment when she could have walked offstage in a blaze of glory. Now, she will slink off amid the mendacious accolades of those who once feted or feared her.
Josef Joffe is on the editorial council of Die Zeit in Hamburg and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.