Cascade of Crises Pile Pressure on Merkel to Stay at Helm

  • Weekend of killings in Germany is chancellor’s latest test
  • Merkel’s CDU party jumps in polls in month since Brexit

Angela Merkel was asleep in the Shangri-La hotel in Ulaanbaatar when her chief of staff called with news of the latest crisis.

QuickTake Angela Merkel

It was 5:30 a.m. in the Mongolian capital -- 10:30 p.m. in Berlin -- and a military coup was under way in Turkey. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced the renegade faction, Merkel took phone briefings from cabinet members before preparing a statement to the press on her return to Berlin the following day, reassuring Turkey of her support for “all those who uphold democracy and the rule of law.”

Angela Merkel gives a statement following the shootings on July 23.

Photographer: Carsten Koall/Getty Images

For the German chancellor, reacting to the steady drumbeat of crises has become almost commonplace. From refugees to rising populism, Brexit to struggling Italian banks, the threats to Europe’s economic and political coherence are multiplying at what seems like an unprecedented pace. The weekend’s shootings in Munich, a machete attack in southwest Germany, and an explosion outside a music festival near Nuremberg coming so soon after the terror rampage in Nice, add to a sense that events risk spiraling out of control.

Faced with mounting uncertainty, Germans are looking to the steady hand of Europe’s most seasoned leader to help anchor the continent at a time of turmoil. That domestic imperative is cementing a consensus in Berlin that the chancellor will seek a fourth term next year, unable to walk away from the burden of responsibility even if she wanted to.

“In part because of the number of challenges, and in part because they’re hard to deal with, she feels a commitment to see this through,” Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former adviser to President Barack Obama on European affairs, said by phone from Washington. “That feeds into my sense that she will run again: There are meaty, substantive challenges to things she cares deeply about.”

Weekend Killings

The shooting dead of nine people on Friday night by an 18-year-old born and raised in Munich adds a new dimension to the sense of crisis. The incident, in which the perpetrator shot himself after a siege, came just five days after a 17-year-old Afghan refugee ran amok with an ax and knife on a train in Bavaria. Then on Sunday, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee killed a woman with a machete and injured two other people in the town center of Reutlingen, south of Stuttgart. The death toll from Nice was 84.

Such a night as was witnessed in Munich “is hard for all of us to bear,” Merkel told reporters at the Chancellery on Saturday, one week after she gave her statement on Turkey. “It’s all the harder to bear as we’ve had to take in so much horrific news in such a short space of time.”

People mourn in Munich on July 23.

Photographer: Johannes Simon/Getty Images

It’s too early to assess the political impact of the killings on German soil, and especially whether the involvement of refugees will reignite criticism of last year’s decision to allow in some 1 million asylum seekers.

What is clear is that Merkel’s ratings had started to climb in recent weeks as voters were confronted with growing uncertainty: her Christian Democratic Union-led bloc is up 3 points in the month since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union.

With 35.5 percent support in a July 21 Allensbach poll, the CDU reached its highest level this year -- 13 points ahead of the Social Democrats, with whom Merkel governs in a so-called grand coalition. Merkel’s popularity has also gained, with 59 percent support among voters in July, a 9 point jump from the previous month, according to a monthly Infratest Dimap poll commissioned by broadcaster ARD.

Pressure ‘Enormous’

Merkel hasn’t indicated whether she’ll run in the next federal election due in the fall of 2017, saying that she’ll decide “at the appropriate time.” She may not have much choice, according to Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst for polling company Forsa.

“The pressure on Merkel to run again in 2017 is great, considering the overall global political situation,” Matuschek said by phone. “But above all it’s her party that will make this demand of her.” Polling shows more than 80 percent of CDU members are for a Merkel candidacy, making the expectation on her to run “enormous,” he said.

An announcement could come at the CDU’s party conference in December. Matuschek said that she can afford to wait until next spring or even summer to make any announcement, putting the media focus on SPD attempts to put up a chancellor candidate at a time when it is suffering historic low poll support.

Possible Successors

The most-often cited reason for a prospective fourth term is the lack of an obvious successor to Merkel. Two potential leaders-in-waiting, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, either lack party support or have seen their political star fade. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, the elder statesman of European politics who commands huge support within the party, demonstrated his loyalty to Merkel by backing her refugee policy at a time when she was damaged politically.

Merkel has overseen Germany’s growing clout during almost 11 years in office that spanned the global financial crisis, Greek debt turmoil and euro-area contagion, refugees, Russian aggression in Ukraine and instability on the EU’s southern and eastern flanks. Now add terrorism, Turkish unpredictability and Brexit -- Prime Minister Theresa May chose Berlin as her first foreign destination as she seeks Merkel’s help to ease the split.

For the chancellor, it often seems as if each new day brings a fresh crisis, according to two officials close to Merkel who asked not to be named discussing internal matters.

Schaeuble, asked about the proliferation of crises in an interview with Bild newspaper published Saturday, said it reminded him of the end of the Soviet empire, a time also characterized by events of “an unbelievable density and drama.” His solution sounded a lot like more Merkel.

“It’s true that everything’s happening rather fast right now,” Schaeuble said. “Political leadership is called for: not precipitous responses, but providing dependency.”

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