On Oct. 29, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she will abdicate her role as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and not seek re-election to her position after her term as chancellor expires in 2021. Her retirement from the post she’s held since 2005 will have ripple effects across the European continent and the world.
Why Is She Retiring?
Merkel’s party has been losing its grip on power since 2017. In last year’s national elections, the CDU/Christian Social Union coalition vote total dropped from 41 percent in 2013 to 33 percent. Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), suffered similar setbacks, dropping to just 20 percent of the total vote.
Fringe political parties are picking up the votes lost by the mainstream parties. In the general election, the far right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), an anti-EU, anti-immigration party with ties to Russia, won 13.5 percent of the vote, becoming the first overtly nationalist party to gain parliamentary representation in 60 years. The leftist Green Party improved its standing to 9 percent of the vote.
The decline of major parties in the 2017 general election results has been reflected in recent regional elections. The day before Merkel’s retirement announcement, the CDU saw an 11 point drop in the Hesse state parliament elections, compared to 2013. Hesse, which includes the German financial center of Frankfurt, is generally seen as a strong bellwether of national trends in Germany. The CDU placed first in the election, but garnered only 27 percent of the vote, down from the 38 percent they received in 2013. The SPD similarly saw an 11 point drop in their performance in Hesse as well. Although the SPD earned 31 percent of the vote in 2013, last weekend, the SPD earned only 20 percent, the lowest showing since 1946. As a result of the poor showing, SPD leader Andrea Nahles has threatened to leave Merkel’s coalition, saying “the SPD must consider whether the government is still the right place” for the party.
Two weeks before the Hesse elections, Merkel’s sister party suffered a similar setback in the Bavarian elections. The CSU plummeted from almost 50 percent of the vote in 2013 to 37 percent in 2018. The CSU has dominated Bavarian politics for decades, making the recent election results especially concerning for the CDU and the German ruling coalition.
In both the Hesse and Bavarian elections, the same fringe parties that surged in the national elections had strong showings. In Hesse, the AfD took in 13 percent of the vote, gaining representation in Hesse’s parliament for the first time. The Green Party almost doubled their total from 2013 in Hesse, gaining 19.5 percent of the vote. In Bavaria, the Greens rose to second place and the AfD gained 10.2 percent of the vote, earning representation in Bavaria’s parliament for the first time as well.
What Does This Mean?
With the development of populist movements globally, Merkel has been described as the liberal order’s counterweight. During tumultuous periods, such as the Euro Crisis of 2012 or the refugee crisis of 2015, Merkel has been a calm, steady leader for the EU. She has consistently guided the way towards more international cooperation instead of allowing states to revert towards unilateral action. Without her, the EU and the liberal order will be seeking a new leader.
The favorite to replace Merkel as the CDU/CSU leader is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, described as a “mini-Merkel” by her party. Kramp-Karrenbauer would likely continue Merkel’s precedent of moderation and broad appeal, stressing humanitarianism. The fading power of the mainstream CDU/CSU coalition and the rising power of fringe parties makes the succession situation more uncertain. If Germany is trending toward the right-wing AfD or the left-wing Greens may reflect itself in the leader the CDU chooses — if electoral support for these fringe parties is driven by ideology, rather than anti-establishment sentiment.
This uncertainty in the world’s third-largest economy — and Europe’s largest — could be damaging for the global economy as a whole. China’s economy is slowing, Brexit trade negotiations are rapidly approaching their March 2019 deadline, and the global markets have been unpredictable at best in the last month. The world and Europe need a strong Germany willing to cooperate with the liberal international order. Without a stable Germany willing to lead, the world will take one more step towards the populist, isolationist trends that have gripped Western nations one at a time. Merkel’s retirement has the potential to be one more factor added to the growing instability in German, European, and global politics.