Angela Merkel’s sixteen years in power have made her a dependable rock in the choppy seas of domestic and international politics — but they have also given her an air of indispensability. Millennials growing up in Germany do not remember a world without “Mutti Merkel”, and as her chancellorship draws to a close, the brave new world without her steady leadership appears daunting.
But Germans need not be nervous. This is a chance for Europe’s largest democracy to finally grow out of the nervous political infancy of its post-war decades and embrace a more confident future.
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Fortunately, when Germans go to the polls in September, “more of the same” will not on the ballot paper. Even Armin Laschet, the newly elected leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) who is touted as a continuity candidate, has insisted that if his party gets re-elected, it will not stand for the “sixteen years of the past”. But there is a palpable nervousness in the air. Merkel is currently facing a barrage of difficulties which she can afford to kick into the long grass until her departure.
One such issue is the increasing scepticism among Germans about their country’s role within the EU. Like Helmut Kohl before her, Merkel has continued a policy of unconditional support for the European project. Indeed, it is rather fitting that the current president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, will by far have been her longest-serving cabinet minister, with roles that spanned from 2005 to 2019.
However, a Spiegel survey published last week laid bare that her adoration for the EU is not universally shared: nearly two-thirds of Germans said that their opinion of the bloc had worsened due to its botched vaccine procurement plans. Half of all participants also said their view of von der Leyen had become “decidedly worse”. Merkel, on the other hand, defended the EU’s decisions as “fundamentally right”.
But while Merkel’s unchallenged position in Germany has allowed her to ignore the public mood, her successor will not have this luxury. For it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is an appetite for change, even among conservative voters who are likely to continue to support the chancellor’s party.
That is partly why Markus Söder, the leader of the CDU’s sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) who has publicly criticised the EU’s sluggish vaccine procurement, is already emerging as the most popular candidate to succeed her. A recent survey showed that 55% of Germans thought he was the best candidate for the CDU/CSU to put forward in the elections; only 27% favoured Laschet.
This election goes right to the heart of Germany and Europe’s relationship — and it is triggering a familiar type of political angst, one with deep roots in Germany’s unique historical past. For too long Germans have voted with a risk aversion that has given their chancellors an unhealthy sense of authority and invincibility. It speaks volumes that, at the end of four terms in power, Angela Merkel is still leading the polls as the most popular German politician. In fact, had she not stepped down herself, there is every chance that she would have been re-elected once again in September.
But while this may seem a sign of enviable consensus — so rare a commodity in an increasingly partisan Western world — the reality is far more complicated and disconcerting. Indeed, beneath the surface of outward stability stews an increasing sense of anger and disenfranchisement, which Merkel’s unchallenged position has allowed her to ignore.
The last federal elections of 2017 laid bare how thin the veneer of political consensus really is. The conservative Union of CDU/CSU came out with a loss of 8.6% while the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gained almost the same amount. Having ruled out working with the latter, Merkel once again turned to a grand coalition with the social democrats (SPD), who had also made staggering losses.
But the 12.6% of the electorate who voted for the AfD are not the only Germans frustrated at the country’s political stagnation. For years, small-c conservatives in Germany have looked on with concern as Merkel pulled their political home, the CDU, further and further towards the centre — most notably with her decision to allow 1.1 million refugees into the country in 2015.
In her typically stoic style, Merkel tried to plaster over the deepening cracks within her party with her slogan, “Wir schaffen das!” — “we can do this!”. There was no need to have a national debate; it was as if her course for the country was an act of God.
This self-image of German chancellors as the ultimate moral and political authority is, of course, an unhealthy and increasingly dangerous relic of the past. Among Western democracies, Germany stands out in the way that its traumatic history has caused its people to value stability over charisma, continuity over change, dependability over showmanship.
Nobody embodies this more than Merkel, whose image as the austere and pragmatic mother of the nation has allowed her to rule without needing to fear the political consequences in a way that a British Prime minister would. A survey last year showed that 71% of CDU/CSU voters were against Merkel’s pro-refugee policies, yet her approval ratings remain paradoxically high.
Why are these German voters so generous? I suspect the answer lies in the fact that, from the beginning, West German democracy constantly felt under threat from extremism. In fact, in the first post-war chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, voters found an ideal candidate for the challenges the country faced. Unashamedly authoritarian, Der Alte (the old man), as he was affectionately known, led his CDU — under the slogan “No Experiments” — to victory in the 1957 election with the only absolute majority ever achieved in German parliamentary history.
But while a single-minded and reliable leader was arguably a necessary infringement on democracy in the wake of two world wars and the traumatic experience of fascism, Adenauer’s tenure also established an unhealthy detachment of the chancellor from his people. Chancellors can no longer afford to sit on a political pedestal, claiming moral exclusivity and dressing this up as steady leadership.
Yes, at the moment, a large part of the electorate is still willing to give an incumbent chancellor the benefit of the doubt. But this better-the-devil-you-know approach can only go so far. Forgotten and left-behind, increasing proportions of the population will turn to radical alternatives — the 2017 elections were proof that this process is well underway.
Whoever inherits the baton of German chancellorship this autumn needs to take this chance of a new beginning and build a more democratic, more transparent and more approachable office which works with the other elements in the constitution rather than above them. Chancellor democracy had its time and its place, but in 2021 it is an anachronistic relic of a bygone age — and anyone who seeks to hold onto it might pay a dear political price. It is time for Germany’s democracy to trust in itself without a father (or indeed a “Mutti”) figure to cling on to, for better or worse. It is time for German democracy to grow up.