The image that comes to mind the most of the particularly disruptive political year 2018 was that of Angela Merkel with Horst Seehofer on the balcony of the Chancellery building. The Chancellor, a glass of white wine in her hand, turned her back on her and walked away from her rebellious Home Secretary, as if he were a dog she had just caught rummaging in the room. kitchen trash can. The wind ruffled her normally perfectly combed hair. She looks miserable, tired, old.
To be fair, Merkel had every reason to be a little disheveled, having spent many late nights negotiating with Seehofer and her other coalition partners over one-stop detention centers for migrants; so-called âAnkerâ centers versus transit centers – an issue that threatened for a few summer weeks to bring down his government and was immediately forgotten when a suitable compromise to save face was found.
Nonetheless, this press photo was a baffling sight for anyone who has ever come close to the Chancellor himself. I saw her testify for five straight hours before a parliamentary commission of inquiry to decline with a confident smile when asked if she wanted a break. For Merkel, stress has always been like water on a duck’s back. Until 2018.
It’s easy to see the image of an exhausted and exasperated Merkel appearing to move away from Seehofer as a metaphor for German democracy. If an article in progress The New Yorker magazine is to be believed, one of the main reasons Merkel decided to run for a fourth term in 2017 was because she felt the world needed a counterweight to US President Donald Trump. If so, 2018 was the year the Moderate Chancellor and the political establishment she embodies began to moan and cringe under this burden.
The nascent dissolution of the SPD
The irony is that much of the political disruption in Germany was due to factors beyond the control of a chancellor whose preference – indeed including the entire political hallmark – is to stay above the fray. Merkel spent the first few months of 2018 doing something familiar: negotiating a third grand, centrist coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). But a funny thing happened on the way to a deal. The SPD began to disintegrate.
It all started when then SPD chairman Martin Schulz did an about-face over whether the Social Democrats would form another government led by Merkel and whether he would sit in it himself. As a result, he was out of work just a year after winning the party leadership unanimously, and the SPD fell below 20 percent in the polls.
Spearheading the campaign against the proposed coalition with Merkel was SPD youth leader Kevin KÃ¼hnert. The then 28-year-old man looked exactly what he was: a college student holding press conferences in jeans without a jacket and his shirt unfolded. But I found him to be clear and consistent in his responses, which was more than what could ever be said of other Social Democratic leaders.
The atmosphere was uncomfortable when I asked SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil if the reason for his party’s unhappiness was that its traditional clientele, the working classes in industry, were rapidly disappearing. What was he supposed to say? And a scene outside of the SPD conference in the spring, where a successor to Schulz was chosen, convinced me that Germany’s oldest political party was in deep trouble.
Some young conservative CDU pranksters handed out earplugs outside the auditorium – a reference to the bulky speaking style of new party leader Andrea Nahles. More than one SPD delegate accepted them. This is the state of Merkel’s current partners.
Slow motion conservative hara-kiri
But if anything, the biggest challenge to Merkel’s democracy has come from its own conservative ranks. Seehofer’s rebellion over refugee policy unfolded night after night of waiting for news from the Chancellery in what amounted to an act of slow-motion hara-kiri with a lot of collateral damage.
The days of turmoil in Chemnitz after the murder of a man allegedly committed by a refugee were the ugliest expression of a familiar stalemate. Germany may not be divided into red and blue states like the United States, but animosity over fundamental issues like migration is, for the time being, insurmountable and impervious to dialogue.
I was present as about a thousand supporters of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the anti-immigrant movement PEGIDA came to Dresden to swear at Merkel. It is doubtful that the Chancellor recorded much of the invective in the roughly 60 seconds it took her to get from her limousine to the Saxon regional parliament building. In the background, the Elbe, reduced to a stream by an intense summer heatwave, flowed rather pitifully in its path. Another emblematic image of decline.
In any case, after the poor results of the conservatives in the regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse, Merkel surprised us in October by ruling out a new candidacy for the chancellery in 2021, or for the leadership of her party in December. In January, despite her difficulties in forming a government, the German Chancellor and the European Union’s longest-serving leader still seemed invincible. At the end of October, she signaled the end of her own political career.
Merkel decided to end her political career at the end of October
The end of the Merkel illusion
What now? Merkel and her feuding government survived to fight another year, and she received a little boost in December, when her ally and sidekick Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was chosen to succeed her as party leader. But the haze of inevitability of the Chancellor and her patented compromise-based centrism has been blown away.
The Greens, whose popularity has yoyoed for decades, but who have never been a dominant party, are now Germany’s second-largest political force, at least if the opinion polls are true, while the SPD fights for the third with the upstart AfD. Large coalitions are a thing of the past. Together, the Conservatives and the SPD would probably not be able to muster anywhere near a parliamentary majority.
The future, it seems, lies with more complex alliances between conservatives and greens. The irony is that while Merkel has long been seen as an advocate for these âblack-greenâ coalitions, unless there are other dramatic surprises, the current Chancellor will not be able to lead one.
2018 began with many people around the world hoping – somewhat unrealistically – that Merkel and Germany could somehow fill the gap in global leadership left by Trump’s America. But as the The New Yorker writes, rightly, “Angela Merkel is not the leader of the free world, and neither will she be.”
And 2019 is already shaping up to be a very unpredictable year.