Noah BarkinSpecial correspondent for Europe at Reuters
Merkel will survive. She has signaled that she plans to soldier on. Her biggest conservative critics—from Horst Seehofer to Jens Spahn—have rallied around her. And there is no one in her party who is strong or bold enough right now to attempt a putsch.
The key question is whether Merkel will emerge from Germany’s unsettling political limbo in a strong enough position to deliver meaningful change at home and in Europe. On that, I am more skeptical.
Merkel emerged weakened from the worst election result for her conservative party since 1949. During the month-long coalition negotiations that followed (and have now collapsed), she was more mediator than leader. Cobbling together a government that would secure her a fourth term appeared at times to be more important to her than the policies that government would produce.
After shocking everyone after a G7 summit in May by saying Europe must take its fate into its own hands, she never spelled out what that meant in concrete terms. The contrast with French President Emmanuel Macron’s daring election campaign and gutsy first months in office was stark and unflattering.
Still, Merkel has enough political capital to form a new government and hang on for a few more years—most likely atop another “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, who will come under severe pressure to partner with her again and avert a deep crisis for Germany and Europe. They are likely to extract a heavy price from her. And a discussion will start immediately about who comes after Merkel.
Ian BremmerPresident of Eurasia Group
Yes. Even with the prospect of fresh elections, the alternative to Merkel would likely be a less moderate political figure from the CDU, which would only make coalition formation more challenging. And Merkel’s polls are better than those of her party. But who’s the strongest leader in Europe these days? It’s been Merkel for a solid decade. Now, it’s no one at all.
Frances G. BurwellDistinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council
Yes. For decades, German politics have been about consensus and stability. The 2017 election was the exception that proves the rule. Many used that vote to tell Chancellor Merkel of their displeasure over immigration. She has made clear that she understands them, and her party has argued for some restrictions on the number asylum seekers entering the country. But with the coalition negotiations now failed, Merkel’s future depends on whether the German people will opt for prolonged instability or return to the clear leadership of “Mother Mutti.”
Merkel favors a new election over minority government. This is a smart choice—the latter would be a slow death with struggles over every vote. A new election offers her a chance to regain her mandate. The reality is that there is no one else. Merkel has consistently polled as more popular than her party. The AfD has had its moment as a means of expressing displeasure over immigration. Neither the SPD nor the FDP is willing to work within a coalition. The Greens proved they would, but need more seats. Throughout the coalition negotiations, Merkel was the clear leader. In a new election, the German public may well opt for a return to stability and give her a bigger mandate.
Heather ConleySenior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
We have become hypnotized by the constancy of German political stability, which is why the announcement that the preliminary coalition talks had broken down was so unexpected—but should have been anticipated.
Germany’s SDP has increasingly lost voters over the past four elections cycles. Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, were hit hard in September’s federal election. In an era where voters seek principled and consistent authenticity, broad coalitions that represent nearly everything (and therefore nothing) no longer suffice. They are also perceived as too great a risk for political survival for the junior partner.
Europe’s new political winds come in one of two directions: young, charismatic political leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron; or new political party formations that present the “outsider” label, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Czech ANO Party. Germany is simultaneously experiencing both effects: a young and brash political figure, Christian Lindner, head of the FDP since 2013; and the unwelcome arrival, also in 2013, of the far right-wing AfD, which is now the third-largest party in the German parliament.
Germany’s political stability (three chancellors in over 35 years) is giving way in its search for a new form. It may mean the first minority government in post-war German history or that German voters will be going back to the ballot box in 2018.
Corinna HörstDeputy director of the Brussels Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and president of Women in International Security Brussels
Merkel is in a double bind. She could never be right. She is being criticized as having been too soft. Had she been tougher, more leading, she would have been seen as too strong, not recognizing the lower votes her party had received in September’s election. Merkel faces higher standards than her male counterparts and, despite demonstrations of her competency in the past three German governments, she is no longer liked.
Merkel can be accused for having failed the task to build a new government. Instead of convening a number of exploratory talks with just the leaders of the political parties, to build trust and find a common vision and basis, the parties immediately delved into coalition-like negotiations. There were too many people involved, too much policy details, and too much media attention-seeking.
However, the other political leaders also bear responsibility for what happened. Their anxieties about their party positions in Germany’s shifting political landscape let them appear narcissistic and immobile. Political leadership is not always about votes. It’s also, sometimes, about doing unpopular things such as compromising. Governing as a Jamaica coalition would have been tough. But it would have been an opportunity to respond in new ways both to the demands of a diverse German population as well as the challenges that Europe faces in a volatile global context.
Josef JanningSenior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of its Berlin office
Evidently, the failure of building a Jamaica coalition weakens Angela Merkel as her credibility rests on delivery. People rely on her ability to manage crises and this is one she didn’t manage. Now, naming and shaming will take over, with those around Merkel determined to put the blame on the smaller parties, notably the liberals.
Merkel herself has two unwelcome options ahead of her. First, she needs to make an attempt to explore the other available coalition option—a third grand coalition government with the Social Democrats. The approach will likely fail, as the Nahles generation feels their time has come and needs the freedoms of an opposition to wash away the old. This won’t be Merkel’s fault, but it will come across as another negative message. After losing three consecutive attempts to be elected chancellor, she will then have to ask German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to call new elections.
After all of that, Merkel will have to run for the chancellery in new elections in the spring. There is no alternative in her own party—much to her own doing. Walking away from the challenge would be totally out sync with her approach to politics. Both the political class and the public would judge her twelve years as chancellor through the prism of her giving in. Merkel can pull through, at the price of yet unknown compromise.
John KornblumSenior counselor at Noerr LLP and former U.S. ambassador to Germany
Merkel will of course pull through. She may even thrive. Lindner’s walkout is the best thing to happen politically in Germany for a long time. There is no alternative to Merkel and no one, including the FDP or the SPD, wish to see her replaced. My guess is that she will form a minority government, tolerated by the FDP and maybe the Greens. Political debate will return to the Bundestag.
Stefan LehneVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
In the short term, certainly. Merkel remains acting chancellor and has announced that she would run again, if new elections are called. She continues to be an electoral asset for her party and— for now—there is no one to replace her. Nonetheless, Angela Merkel might be entering the twilight of her political career. Even the most successful politicians in democratic countries have a maximum shelf life of twelve to fifteen years. After that, the public grows tired of seeing the same face and hearing the same voice. Inevitably, her authority will weaken and the party and the public will increasingly focus on succession.
The new turbulence in German politics could accelerate this process. Merkel understandably expressed her reluctance to lead a minority government, which would be a messy arrangement destined to end with a vote of no confidence. Fresh elections might result in a political constellation just as complicated as the present one.
It is sad that a political life, different from a career in arts or business, usually ends in failure. Few manage to exit gracefully at the right moment. Even though the end might not be pretty, the historian’s verdict on Merkel’s many years at the center of German and European politics is likely to be positive.
Denis MacShane Former UK minister for Europe
Mrs. Merkel can just about survive, in the sense of the CDU emerging from new elections still as the biggest party in Germany. But even if that result were forthcoming, would she want to carry on as chancellor?
Two years ago, I wrote that Merkel was chancing her luck running for a fourth term. There is an iron rule that a big leader—Thatcher, Kohl, González, de Gaulle—can govern successfully for a decade, but after ten years something happens and abruptly their rule ends. Mrs. Merkel has been the best Western leader of the twenty-first century; one who has maintained an appearance of modesty, uninterested in the trappings of power or going off to make millions like her predecessor, or most other presidents or prime ministers once out of power.
Was she gripped by the “indispensability” syndrome—that there was no other possible leader? Given how she knifed Helmut Kohl when he also stayed on for a disastrous fourth term as Herr Indispensable in 1994, she should have known that a fourth run was a bad idea. The Gemütlichkeit, self-satisfied German era is over. All the democratic parties need to find new leaders, words, and policies before the extreme AfD becomes even stronger.
Christian Odendahl Chief economist at the Centre for European Reform
When I floated the idea of a German minority government in early September and argued that there were upsides to it, the reaction was critical, bordering on hostile. How on earth could I consider that likely or even desirable? It would be the end of (pick one): German democracy, Angela Merkel, the SPD, Europe, the West. It is not just German politicians who seem unable to deal with the new reality of a six-party Bundestag. The political bubble in Berlin is equally unimaginative.
Can Merkel pull through? New elections are unlikely to yield any other result than that of September 24: no majority for any bloc. The pressure would then be on the SPD to agree to another grand coalition, however strong the SPD might try to suggest otherwise. Such a grand coalition would be led by Merkel, and would be reasonably stable.
A minority government supported by the SPD alone would not work. But as I suggested in September, a CDU/CSU minority government, supported by the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP combined, would work. Merkel would have two options for policy initiatives, the government would be stable in crisis, and Merkel would be forced to explain and fight for her policies, reinvigorating both her leadership and German democracy.
Marc Pierini Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The failure of coalition talks in Berlin undoubtedly put Chancellor Merkel in a difficult spot. The path toward ending the deadlock is a difficult one, especially looking at it from an EU perspective.
One option, in the hands of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is to hold another election. This brings three distinct dangers: potential gains for the extreme-right AfD party; further hardening of the FDP’s positions on immigration; and delaying Germany’s return to action on the European agenda.
Bearing in mind the EU’s standing on the international stage, a better solution would be for Martin Schultz, leader of the SPD, to reconsider the possibility of joining a grand coalition, which the party previously rejected. This would allow a stable federal government to be formed, with or without the Greens.
There were understandable reasons for the SPD to opt for a “cure of opposition” on September 25. Now, the tables have turned. A prolonged refusal to participate in a coalition government will place not just Germany in persistent difficulty, but also the wider project of EU reform. This would be a paradoxical situation for Martin Schulz himself, who has been a successful president of the European Parliament. Reconsider, Mr. Schulz?
Stephen SzaboResident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
We are witnessing the end of the Merkel era in German politics. However, it is likely to be a post-Merkel era, with Merkel remaining as chancellor. She was badly weakened by her party’s disastrous results in the September general election and her standing is now even weaker following the collapse of the coalition negotiations. She faces the prospect either of heading a minority government or going into new elections within the next couple of months. It seems probable that she will remain as chancellor in either scenario, given the lack of any realistic alternative leader within her own party, and the likelihood that the CDU/CSU will remain the largest political group in the Bundestag after another election.
However, if the CDU polls below where it did in September, then Merkel might not survive to form the next government. Whatever the outcome, everyone will be looking past her in anticipation that she will only serve part of the four-year term. This is bad news for those who were looking to Germany to revitalize the European project. The next chancellor will not have the power and authority that many outside of Germany have come to expect during the long Merkel era.
Jan Techau Director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin
Yes, Merkel is safe on the home front because there are more stabilizing factors that hold her in office than there are disruptive ones that could lead to her ousting. She was the tireless, honest broker throughout four weeks of tedious talks and all parties involved have acknowledged that. 54 percent of Germans want her to stay on the job, an unbelievable number after twelve years in office. There is no obvious inner-party rival and the CDU is far away from a palace revolt. Quite to the contrary, the party seems to close ranks in times of crisis.
Most importantly, the public blames others for the failure of the talks, not Merkel. As a consequence, she could announce that, should snap elections be held, she would run again—and no one would think that an outlandish idea. The hype that she is politically dead is just that: hype. Merkel was weaker immediately after the September election because her party came out of it badly damaged. Now, she emerges from the crisis as the silent winner.
Internationally, of course, things are different. Here Merkel is a much diminished figure. No major policy proposal or even decision can be expected from Berlin for the time being. This might change at some point, but not until months of precious time has passed. This is the real bad news for her. Merkel sought a fourth term because she wanted to make EU reform her legacy project. She might get it, but no one knows on what terms.