NOTO ONE EVER got rich bets against Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor has survived all predictions of her untimely demise. It has survived the national and international crises galore. After winning four trotting elections, she is now her fourth French president, her fifth British Prime Minister and her seventh (and even more) Italian Prime Minister. As she enters her 15th year in power, she remains one of the most popular politicians in Germany.
Yet, as an eccentric German saying goes: everything has an end; only one sausage has two. Merkel’s wish to retire by the fall of 2021 in Germany’s next election created a power vacuum that manifested itself at the annual conference last weekend in Leipzig of the center-right Christian Democrat Union of Mrs. Merkel (CDU). The Chancellor was a distant presence, spending most of the event glued to her phone while the first skirmishes of the war to succeed it were fought. Suggestions that Friedrich Merz, a favorite of the party’s conservative wing, could launch a coup against Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who replaced his mentor Ms. Merkel as CDU a year ago, turned out to be so media-friendly. Mr. Merz has declared his loyalty and Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer will fight another day. But the calculation avoided is simply a delayed calculation, because Germany is now struggling with post-Merkel syndrome.
This era, which could last until the next election, will be characterized by uncertainty, resentment and a Germany even more withdrawn than usual. Every statement that overflows from the lips of a major politician will be analyzed for what it means for the “K-question “- who CDU choose as her Kanzler (chancellor) candidate in a year? The German coalition, a partnership of the CDU as well as its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the social democrats (SPD), will get bogged down in trivial rows as politicians scramble to position themselves as the legitimate heir to Ms. Merkel. Voters will be frustrated, as will German partners; Emmanuel Macron has already made his irritation apparent. The Chancellor is not always as absent as her detractors suggest – she has been deeply involved in coalition talks on a recent climate package, for example, and has big ideas for the German presidency of the EU Advice in the second half of 2020. But on domestic policy issues, she checked some time ago.
Ms. Merkel’s long goodbye also reshuffles the game for the other major holidays. The success of the Greens, who briefly surpassed polls earlier this year, forces this party to answer countless questions on which of its two telegene leaders will be the chancellor, rather than on the fleshy political issues they would rather discuss. More immediate anxiety assists troubled people SPD, who on November 30 elects a new leader and a week later decides whether or not to leave the coalition as part of a planned review. If so, early elections may follow. This would instantly shake the German political kaleidoscope.
However, if the coalition limped in 2020, as most expected, the theater of operations CDU. For the moment, the party finds itself in suspicious limbo. As a leader, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has a target on her back. Since taking office, she has made a series of unforced errors, has struggled to control the administration of the party, and has presided over the loss of state elections and an electoral crisis. As a result, she is now one of the least loved politicians in Germany. Admittedly, she responds to the pressure: her long speech in Leipzig has been good enough to ward off her rivals, for now, and since her new post as Defense Secretary, she has had a semi-decent stab to inject of life in Germany’s dying foreign policy debate. Having won the leadership fair, she will not leave peacefully.
But the Leipzig gossip did not bode well for Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer. Many party leaders, including Merkel, do not think she can get out of the pit she has dug herself. A big piece of CDU members believe – or perhaps a grudge – that Merkel has distorted the recognition party, sacrificing the conservative advantage for muddy centrism, and fears that her protege may offer more of the same. And so the enemies turn. Beyond Mr. Merz, aspiring CDU candidates for the chancellery include Armin Laschet, the moderate prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany; Markus Söder, leader of CSU and Prime Minister of Bavaria, whose hard-hitting speech in Leipzig demolished the house; and Jens Spahn, a young brandon who has quietly expanded his networks as German Minister of Health. As these contenders, and perhaps others, compete, there are two things to keep in mind. the CDU hate the disunity of internal strife – that’s what SPD it’s for, but he also likes to win. Which of these trends will prevail over the next year is likely to shape the future of CDU—And from Germany.
Merkel Estate Wars
There could be a fruitful path to follow. Assuming that SPD does not deliver a shock in December the CDU, who has always boasted like a big tent, could use next year to revive the debates stifled by the long chancellery of Merkel, largely without ideology. There were weak signs of this in Leipzig. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s combative insistence that the CDU must meet the challenges of disruptive technologies, from 5 tog artificial intelligence networks was a useful jolt for a party under whose supervision Germany became a digital laggard. There is also new thinking on how to make the German social market economy more climate friendly. This will matter if, as many observers predict, CDU begins coalition talks with the Greens after the next election.
Yet all of this could collapse in power struggles. Mr. Laschet fears for Germany something like the American fate, where the primaries leave the candidates bruised by their own camp before being able to lead the fight against the adversary. When Ms. Merkel passed the baton to Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer last year, it looked like the Chancellor would succeed where all of her predecessors had failed: in managing her own exit. His own party can still refuse him this wish. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Post-Merkel Syndrome”