February 11, 2020
End of Merkel has suddenly come into sharper focus
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is an unpopular politician in Germany for reasons that have little to do with her politics. This is more about her personality, as she has a rather un-German tendency to shoot from the hip. We wrote yesterday that we did not expect her to become chancellor. As it turned out, neither did she. She went one step further by concluding that she cannot remain party leader while someone else becomes chancellor.
There is a lot of hindsight analysis in the German press this morning. People who never criticised her before now saw it all coming. There is an equal amount of lazy inference that this will lead to an inevitable disaster for the CDU.
We could indeed think of scenarios in which that would be the case. If, for example, the conservatives within the CDU were to elevate Friedrich Merz to the top job, we could see a Schulz-effect. Recall how Martin Schulz enjoyed a meteoric rise in the opinion polls as he became SPD leader, followed by a sudden collapse once people took a closer look at him. Merz, too, might come across as a breath of fresh air. But beware: this is a man with a very thin skin, who quit politics once already after being defeated by Angela Merkel.
But the CDU/CSU has other, more substantial candidates. One is Armin Laschet, prime minister of North-Rhine Westphalia. Another is Markus Söder, Bavarian prime minister. As CSU leader Söder is sensibly not pushing for the chancellor job, waiting to be asked. That might or might not happen. We would consider both of them to be serious politicians. But neither Merz, Laschet nor Söder have original ideas on the issues Germany needs to tackle: climate change, lack of investment, lack of innovation, gaping holes in its security infrastructure, and the future of the EU. AKK at least tried to tackle security. She will remain defence minister, at least for now.
So, once the CDU chooses a leader and chancellor candidate this spring, what would then happen to the government? It is worth going through the scenarios in detail. The CDU/CSU might, for example, conclude that they need to give their new man a head start by electing him chancellor already. Germany is one of the few countries in Europe with an incumbent bonus in elections. The problem with that scenario is that the SPD will not go along with it. The last thing it wants is to help someone against whom they will campaign in the next elections, scheduled for 2021.
This leaves us with two alternative scenarios. The first is that Merkel quits this summer and makes way for early elections. Like all political careers, hers is ending in failure too, and the endgame is becoming painful to watch. Like AKK, Merkel too might realise that her game is up. Bild, which used to be one of her cheerleaders, yesterday called on her to quit. The CDU would not be able to make a fresh start with her in the chancellery and with a new party leader whom she despises. AKK suited her because she was loyal and politically weak. Even more serious is Bild’s devastating judgement of Merkel’s politics: she has misjudged the two big issues of our time, migration and climate change. The CDU has lost voters to the AfD on the former issue and to the Greens on the latter one.
A second scenario is that the grand coalition continues to govern until the bitter end, irrespective of all that. Never underestimate the trappings of office. Germany's rotating EU presidency in the second half of the year could serve as a useful pretext to continue the coalition. The EU presidency is a symbolic relic of the past. It aimed to give small countries an inflated sense of their importance. The establishment of the European Council with a permanent president has rendered the whole concept obsolete, but EU member states still find it useful to be in the limelight every now and then. Merkel might find it helpful because it suspends democracy in Germany during that period. Also consider that the SPD might want to continue the coalition with Merkel. The new leaders were full of hot air when they campaigned in opposition to the grand coalition. This may be the last taste of power the present generation of SPD politicians, like Olaf Scholz, are likely to enjoy for a long time.
In the end, this is going to be Merkel’s choice alone. She can leave in the spring or summer, or leave later. The CDU cannot force the choice on her. We think that she should go as soon as possible. Imagine how awkward it would be for a new party leader, who will not be a member of the cabinet, having to fight an election with Merkel in office. To win, the candidate would have to campaign against the policies of the grand coalition, and thus against Merkel.