After Germany’s recent state government elections in Hesse, in which the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered double-digit losses, German media proclaimed the results amounted to a Denkzettel for Merkel. Denkzettel is one of those curious compound nouns that make the German language what it is. It literally means “think note,” but what it amounts to is a warning.
And it’s a warning Merkel took seriously. The following day she announced that she wouldn’t stand for her party’s leadership at their December conference, throwing open the race to succeed her.
She plans to remain chancellor until 2021, but it’s anyone’s guess if she’ll last that long. Alan Posener, writing in The Guardian, claims that “by this time next year at the very latest, she’ll be out of that job, too.”
So that’s it. The long Merkel era — she became Germany’s chancellor in 2005 — is at an end. But is it the end of one person’s dominance of the political scene, or does it forebode more fundamental changes to German society?
The rise of the far right
It may have been a state election, but it’s clear the voters were passing judgment on the political situation in Berlin and the infighting of a governing coalition made up by the CDU/CSU/SPD, three of the oldest and most mainstream German political parties.
The most obvious beneficiary of voters’ ire has been the far-right party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD). Once ignored as a fringe party of xenophobic nationalists, the AfD has drawn votes away from the less extreme right with its clear, if antagonistic, messaging on immigrants and the European project.
A second beneficiary of the inertia in Berlin has been the Green party. Often characterized in the media as leftist, it is actually more centrist in many of its policies, and it has proven itself to be a reliable coalition partner on state and national levels.
Its positions are almost diametrically opposed to those of the AfD, and yet it, too, is enjoying a bump in the polls.
Many view these developments as evidence that Germany isn’t safe from the recent wave of political disruption rolling over western democracies. Yet while this rearrangement of Germany’s political order may seem sudden, it has been a while in the making.
When we look back on the Merkel era, we see that the German version of the current voter dissatisfaction has its roots in some of the actions taken by Merkel and her government.
The European debt crisis of the early 2010s did Merkel no favours. Protesters in Greece weren’t shy about depicting Merkel with a Hitler moustache after Germany led the European Union in demanding severe austerity measures from Greece in return for loans to prop up the country.
Merkel also paid the price at home. The AfD came into being in the spring of 2013 and garnered a surprising 4.7 per cent of the vote in the federal election that September. The party had a simple economic message: Germany — and all of Europe — should abandon the Euro — otherwise, Germany would have to continue propping up the entire European financial system.
The AfD’s support would only grow as the result of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015. Merkel made a bold move, opening Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees with a robust “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do this!”) that was met with enthusiastic support. Time magazine named her “Person of the Year.”
The euphoria was short-lived, however. As the German Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) began to crumble, most notably after mass sexual assaults attributed to migrants in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve in 2015, the AfD shifted its focus to immigration issues.
Merkel shifted, too, though more slowly, and in the run-up to the federal election of 2017 she began musing about the need for a burka ban. Other CDU and CSU politicians have tried to outmanoeuvre the AfD by taking ever more forceful stands on immigration. But this rightward movement has done little to stave off the AfD’s increasing popularity.
The federal government’s inability to deal resolutely with recent violent neo-Nazi protests in the eastern German city of Chemnitz left many voters even more despondent. Merkel wanted the chief of the German domestic intelligence service fired for playing down reports that the protesters had chased migrants through the streets.
Her Interior Minister and sharp critic Horst Seehofer of the CSU, however, supported the embattled chief, giving him a ministry appointment and pay raise. A Deutschlandtrend poll at the time revealed the depth of voter dissatisfaction: The AfD had become the second most popular party in Germany, ahead of even the SPD.
Merkel’s legacy will be a mixed one. There’s no doubt she’s dominated Germany’s political culture during her tenure as chancellor, sidelining most party rivals with ease. But she has also punted decisions down the field in the hope that they might just go away altogether. Her steady-as-you-go mentality has been criticized as an aversion to decision-making.
Imperfect though she may be, Merkel has struck many observers as the last best hope for stemming the tide of populism sweeping Europe and threatening its institutions.
At the same time, her exit from the national stage lays bare the fissures in Germany’s political stability for which her government must accept some of the blame.
Germany’s post-war stature is largely due to a consensus among mainstream political parties on two fundamental points.
The first is the acceptance that the nation must atone for the crimes of the Third Reich. The second is the realization that, for all its economic benefits, the most important reason for integration with Europe is its role in preventing Germany and Europe from slipping back into the abyss of totalitarianism.
Germany’s politicians will have to redouble their efforts to maintain this hard-won stability. That it can no longer be taken for granted is the real Denkzettel posed by Merkel’s departure.