The day after major regional elections in Germany, the results weren’t very reassuring, to say the least.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition was hammered in Bavaria, home to the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of her Christian Democratic Union (DCU). The CSU lost its majority. Its share of the vote fell by over 10.5 percent to just over 37 percent. As for the Social Democrats, they might as well close shop in this prosperous state. The party’s share of the vote fell by nearly 11 percent to 9.7 percent.

The big winners were the Greens. They capitalized on the bitter infighting inside the conservative bloc and the federal coalition, and pocketed 17.5 percent of votes—a whopping increase of nearly 9 percent.  

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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The anti-immigration, anti-Euro (in fact, almost anti-everything), Alternative for Germany (AfD) won over 10 percent of the ballots, the first time it stood in Bavaria. And a motley but important collection of Free Voters—usually conservative candidates—mopped up 11.6 percent. The latter could well become the kingmakers in Bavaria’s next government. Just a few other statistics to put this election into perspective: 190,000 CSU voters defected to the Greens, 160,000 to the AfD, and 220,000 to the Free Voters.

So what does this mean for Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular and for Europe in general?  It means the increasing erosion of support for the two big parties that have governed Germany since 1945. It also means that Berlin will not make any bold initiatives on any kind of reform of the Eurozone or any other proposals related to economic or political integration. The outcome of the Bavarian elections gives the coalition very little room to manoeuver. And even if Merkel wanted to adopt a more open, communicative style to win back trust—which she said was necessary in the aftermath of Sunday’s miserable result—it’s not her character.

Besides, there’s always another election around the corner that suspends decisions in a way that is putting Merkel’s fourth coalition government on autopilot.

In two weeks, voters go to the polls in the German state of Hesse, home to Frankfurt, Europe’s financial capital. Run by the Christian Democrats in coalition with the Greens, Merkel is hoping the outcome will not be a disaster for the CDU. She cannot afford a poor result ahead of her party’s important congress in December.

These congresses are more than talking shops. They test the temperature of the delegates. This year, two candidates have thrown their hats into the ring to run against Merkel’s leadership of the party. They haven’t a chance of winning. But the fact that they dare challenge Merkel shows how her authority is waning.

And if she survives the congress, which just might allow her to instill some new energy into her coalition, around the corner are the European Parliament elections and all the back-room deals involved in selecting candidates for the EU’s top jobs: president of the European Commission, president of the European Council, and head of the European External Action Service. Indeed, ever since Merkel was reelected for the fourth time in September 2017, her tenure has been characterized by waiting: waiting for a new coalition to be formed; waiting for regional elections; waiting for an end to coalition bickering; waiting for clarity about which direction she wants to take Germany, meaning Europe. And all the time, French President Emmanuel Macron, whose ambitious reforms for the Eurozone has won him several enemies and few supporters, has been kept waiting by Merkel.

To make matters even more difficult for Merkel, her coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), are in terrible shape. SPD leader Andrea Nahles just cannot decide which direction to take her party in. The younger rank-and-file members want to quit the coalition—but that’s easier said than done. Both the CDU and the SPD have no appetite for another election. Nor have either party settled on who should succeed Merkel or Nahles.

The only hope for the coalition is that the CSU’s election debacle in Bavaria—caused largely by the party’s constant bickering inside the federal coalition and the blatant animosity between Horst Seehofer (the CSU interior minister and CSU leader) and Merkel—might now stop. If that is the case, it might buy Merkel and her coalition some time. But to do what, exactly?

Merkel’s inbox is bursting with major, complicated foreign policy issues: Russia and Ukraine, relations with the United States, the Western Balkans, China—not to mention the political and economic fragility of Italy and its consequences for the Eurozone, and (of course) Brexit. Europe can’t afford a German government that is on autopilot. But that is exactly what is likely to continue over the coming months, unless Merkel shifts gear.