After Another Loss at the Polls, Merkel's Political Future Is Unclear

QuickTake: Angela Merkel's Vision of Europe
  • German chancellor’s silence on running again raises doubts
  • Fall party conventions seen as critical to her future

Another week, another election defeat for Angela Merkel, and a familiar round of calls for the chancellor to acknowledge she’s to blame.

Each successive blow at the hands of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party piles pressure on Merkel to admit that her refugee policy of the past 12 months is leading her Christian Democratic Union ever further into the electoral desert. So far she’s refusing to back down, leading to speculation she may not contest federal elections due in 2017.

For more on the electoral pressures the chancellor faces, click here

Whether she’ll run again is the talk of the town in Berlin this fall, and it’s a question that only Merkel herself can answer. It’s Germany’s best-kept political secret precisely because Merkel hasn’t made up her mind on a fourth term, according to two people familiar with her thinking who asked not to be identified. She hasn’t even decided when to announce whether she’ll stand again, said the people, whose insight helped inform the following scenarios.

Could she be ousted?

After almost 11 years in office, the firestorm of criticism over Merkel’s defense of open borders catches the three-term chancellor at a low point, her authority challenged by a restless electorate, slumping poll ratings and a party split over refugee policy.

Her most vocal critics are from her own side. Bavaria’s ruling Christian Social Union party says it’ll field its own chancellor candidate if Merkel sticks with her refusal to set a refugee quota of 200,000 a year. It would be a historic break between the CSU and the CDU, its big sister, which have always agreed on a joint candidate since World War II.

If Merkel, 62, and Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, her biggest antagonist on the national stage, don’t settle their spat by the start of a CSU party conference in Munich on Nov. 4, the likelihood of a lasting split in Merkel’s bloc increases. While not an automatic reason to quit, such a scenario would embolden Merkel’s party critics amid concern that conservative Bavaria may be channeling the mainstream view.

What about a confidence vote?

Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel’s Social Democratic predecessor, sought one in 2005 to engineer early elections to win the country’s backing for economic reforms. He lost that election to Merkel, though only by one percentage point of the national vote after staging a comeback in the polls. It’s still a risky option that’s rarely mentioned in Berlin’s political chatter and seems at odds with Merkel’s cautious nature.

How could she orchestrate her withdrawal?

It could start with Merkel declining to seek re-election as CDU party head at the party’s convention scheduled for early December, particularly if pre-convention straw polls suggest a sizable share of delegates won’t support her. Standing down would be read as a signal that she’s bowing out as chancellor, or she might combine both announcements, saying she won’t seek re-election in September 2017.

As with former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, she could also announce her decision to step aside at some point once a successor is lined up. Possible contenders include Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s elder statesman at age 74. All would most likely be interim choices. Arguments against: Even her party critics say no full-fledged successor is in the wings, and German instability risks causing market turmoil.

Merkel has a history of ruthlessness when it counts and giving up would hand a victory to her critics, including the Alternative for Germany, or AfD. “Merkel’s approval ratings are still incredibly high by international comparison,” said Timo Lochocki, a political analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. “If she had been willing to step down, she would have done so already.”

Doesn’t Germany have term limits?

No. Helmut Kohl, Merkel’s political mentor, served four full terms between 1982 and 1998. CDU co-founder Konrad Adenauer held on for 14 years starting in 1949. No chancellor of the Federal Republic has left office willingly. Adenauer came closest in 1961, accepting a demand by his Free Democratic coalition partner to make way for a younger successor midway through his term. He left office two years later at age 87.

What about external factors?

Risks include another terrorist attack in Germany and the European Union’s fragile refugee accord with Turkey, which Merkel credits with helping reduce the influx from last year’s peak. Possible positives: a further reduction in refugee numbers that Merkel is pledging to work for may change the narrative. So might her knack for playing a central role in European crises, such as the looming talks on Brexit.

Where does that leave us?

With the December party convention looming, we should know within 10 weeks if not earlier. While two surveys this summer suggested about half of Germans don’t want Merkel to run for a fourth term, 70 percent of eligible voters in her bloc do, according to a Bild poll in August. The CDU-CSU still leads in all national polls, and at 45 percent, her approval ratings are stellar compared to European peers such as Francois Hollande of France. 

Merkel reached out to her critics at a news conference on Monday, offering a rare admission of blame as she seeks to win back voters. Bild, Germany’s most-read daily newspaper, said her shift of tone means “there can’t be any doubt that she’ll run again.” Merkel again declined to answer the question, saying she’ll announce at the appropriate time.

Merkel “has said many times that you have to stick to your position on important issues and not follow the public’s every whim,” said Herbert Reul, a CDU lawmaker in the European Parliament who sits on the party’s leadership board in Berlin. “I expect her to run again because she views it as her responsibility to finish the job on her refugee policy.” Verdict: Still the most likely scenario.

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