At the German conservative party’s annual meeting in Essen on December 4, Chancellor Merkel was elected head of her party for the ninth consecutive time. The show of support comes only a few weeks after Merkel announcing her willingness to stand for reelection in 2017. For those fearing the populist wave in Europe, driven in Germany with the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party, Merkel’s candidature comes as a sigh of relief. However, her last term has not done her any favors on the left or the right and she was selected by only 89.5 percent of the 1,000 CDU delegates at the meeting. This marks her second worst result ever.
For the next ten months, Merkel will be forced to walk a fine line between hard-line anti-immigration policies proposed by her own party and taking care of the 1.1 million refugees that she herself welcomed in late 2015. After serving for over ten years, many question whether the Chancellor still understands the German electorate. Meanwhile, others are exalting her as the last stalwart of liberal democracy in the face of worrying populism.
Is she right for the job?
Were this a normal election cycle, pundits would be questioning whether Chancellor Merkel is good for Germany at all. After serving has the head of government for over a decade, Merkel has earned a reputation as the ultimate politician. Her speeches are measured, her policies are rarely radical, and her standard hand position, dubbed the Chancellor’s rhombus, has become iconic.
Nevertheless, Merkel’s third term has been wrought with crisis. After a narrow victory in the 2013 general election, Merkel’s CDU was forced to form a grand coalition – nicknamed the “GroKo” – with the SPD, Germany’s center-left party. Reaching consensus in a coalition government can be tricky in the best of times, but as crisis after crisis unfolded in Europe, consensus seemed impossible. Chancellor Merkel’s attempts to navigate smoothly through these crises, as she did during the eurocrisis of her second term, proved impossible.
Merkel’s migration policies in particular have drawn sharp criticism from all sides. In 2015, when the flood of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa hit its peak, Merkel famously touted Germany’s so-called “Willkommenskultur,” and insisted that Europe could manage the refugee crisis with compassion and solidarity. In a speech following an attack on a asylum center in Heidenau, Germany in 2015, Merkel stood by her decision, calling the attacks on refugees “shameful” and declaring, “I have to honestly say that if we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in the presence of need, then this is not my country.”
While Merkel’s generosity was initially met with domestic and international support, the mood quickly soured as thousands more asylum-seekers poured into Germany. Many have commented that the Chancellor’s initial reaction, so unlike her usual measured decisions, marked a clear disconnect between the Chancellor and her constituents. In 2016, when Merkel’s party only managed a third place victory behind the populist AfD and the SPD in her own district, it became all the more clear how out of touch she has become.
Is she our only hope?
Out of touch she may be, but with the threat of populist parties taking charge across Europe, Chancellor Merkel’s shortcomings become easier to swallow. The AfD, led by the startlingly Merkel-esque Frauke Petry, lists as its priorities curtailing further immigration; putting participation in the Euro up to a referendum; halting further negotiations on CETA and TTIP; and limiting Germany’s commitment to Europe with the motto “Germany first”. In other words, it is yet another iteration of the standard populist ticket seen around Europe and in the US in 2016.
Following the Brexit vote, which was driven by the populist UK Independent Party, and the US election of Donald J. Trump, the self-proclaimed “ultimate outsider,” moderates in Europe are understandably terrified. Less than a week ago, the Italian constitutional referendum prompted the resignation of Matteo Renzi. A week before that, French President François Hollande announced his intention to step down in 2017. Cameron, Renzi, Hollande, and Merkel – four of Europe’s most powerful leaders, and only one will remain in 2017.
To characterize Merkel as Europe’s “last hope” or as the “last defender” of liberal democracy, as some in the media have, seems a bit hyperbolic. The AfD did have a surprising turnout in 2016, but the likelihood that it will garner enough support to form – or even be a part of – the next coalition is slim. As of now, the party does not have any seats in the national parliament, though it does have 143 of the 1855 state parliamentary seats. Still, the rise in populism cannot be ignored and the CDU and other parties may have to cater to ideas that would have, in any other election year, seemed too far right. That was clear during the annual party meeting when delegates debated the merits of banning face veils for Muslim women and doing away with dual citizenship. The tone of the nation has shifted, and the Chancellor will have to consider this in order to run a successful campaign.
Can she win?
It may not be clear if she is the right person for the job, or if she has the full weight of the CDU behind her, but Chancellor Merkel has been in power for almost 12 years. For many Germans, she seems almost like a permanent fixture atop the governmental pyramid. Not the most effective leader, or the most likeable, but the best option for right now.
Still, Merkel’s approval ratings have seen constant fluctuation in the past year. Over the summer, she reached new lows – in an August 2016 poll published by Zeit Online, only 42% of Germans wanted to see her run again. However, immediately following the US election of Donald Trump, Merkel’s approval rating rebounded. According to a Stern Magazine poll, 59% of Germans signaled their wish for her to run again on Nov 9, perhaps a reactionary poll driven by a glimpse of real populism in the US. However, as the dust settles Merkel must find a way to make these ratings sustainable, otherwise she faces an uphill battle in September. ”You have to help me,” Chancellor Merkel told CDU members gathered in Essen last week. Someone has to.
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