Merkel’s succession troubles Germany

Merkel’s succession troubles Germany

If Angela Merkel is not able to rapidly find an able successor and ensure a smooth transition, her 16-year-long reign could end up being best remembered for the vacuum that she left behind. (AFP)
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In the end, the departure was rather ignominious. Following a rebellion in her ranks, which saw her party leadership in the east German state of Thuringia support the extreme right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party to install the leader of a small, pro-business party to form a government, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), leader of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) - Germany’s largest party that has been running the country for almost two decades - had little option but to resign.

Since the end of World War II, mainstream German politicians have been vocal against anything smacking of Nazism or neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism.

So much so that two mainstream rivals, the socialists as well as the center-right CDU-CSU (Christian Social Union of Bavaria) alliance have preferred to join hands with each other in forming a national coalition government rather than any one of them striking a deal with the AfD, in order to grab power.

Hence, it was unthinkable and indeed an earthquake moment in post-war German politics when the CDU leadership in Thuringia agreed to support from the AfD in order to dislodge the center-left government and install another one.

Thousands of Germans immediately took to the streets to protest the CDU’s move that upturned a seven-decade-old policy to stay away from the extreme right parties.

The CDU’s leadership, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and CDU party leader AKK, were quick to repudiate the party’s state unit for its choice, and soon enough the CDU leader in the state was forced out.

In the normal course, perhaps, the matter would have ended there. However, these are not normal days in German politics.

After nearly two decades of unchallenged dominance of the CDU, her party, the German government and the European leadership, Merkel’s decision two years ago to hang up her boots created a power vacuum at the top.

Merkel had loomed so large not only over her party, but also over the German and European political landscape, that she has since struggled to find an able successor, not just to run the party, but also the government and keep Germany’s leadership role at the EU table.

The German leader was initially expected to nominate the then Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen, who had been her closest associate and a minister in her Cabinet since 2005.

The CDU’s leadership, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and CDU party leader AKK, were quick to repudiate the party’s state unit for its choice, and soon enough the CDU leader in the state was forced out.

Ranvir Nayar

However, Merkel surprised political observers by overlooking her and opting for AKK. Von der Leyen was duly promoted out of German politics by being nominated as the president of the European Commission. AKK was elected leader of the party in December 2018 and was supposed to step into Merkel’s shoes as the chancellor after the elections, scheduled for the end of next year.

However, almost from the word go, AKK has proven to be a big letdown.

Not only has she struggled to match up to the image and brand name that Merkel leaves behind, but she has found it difficult to control her party members, with a number of pretenders to the throne continuously sniping at her from the sidelines.

Matters came to a head in November last year when AKK threatened to step down as leader of the party unless its members united behind her. For about six weeks, the threat seemed to have worked and the party rebels calmed down. However, the Thuringia incident not only revived the rebels but also cast a big blot on AKK’s leadership, raising huge questions over her grip on the party.

Thus, with elections in 21 months, Merkel finds herself back where she was after her last election in 2017. She needs to find a new party leader and perhaps also a new chancellor.

But her plans of giving the new party leader enough time to slip into her chancellor shoes have gone bust, as besides winning over members of the party, the new CDU leader will also have to gain the support of German voters, who seem to be increasingly turning toward the Greens.

Over the last two years, the Greens have been taking an increasing share of voters across the nation, especially among the young and well-educated, pushing the center-right CDU-CSU further toward the right.

Merkel will now have to pull out a magic wand and find someone who will not only appeal to the party membership and be able to rally them behind the new leader, but also have the charisma and the recognition nationwide in order to pull the voters back toward the CDU-CSU coalition.

To say the task will be an uphill struggle is an understatement. Indeed, Merkel and her CDU could need a miracle in order to retain power next year as the Green party seems to have stolen a march over the centrist parties.

The Green’s advantage is multifold. One, their leadership race is long-settled and the duo at the top, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, are increasingly becoming household names across the entire nation. Secondly, the realistic environment-friendly politics and policies of the Greens have begun to find favor among an increasing number of German voters.

As a result, the Greens will spend the run-up to the next federal elections increasing their footprint and occupying a bigger space in the center, while the CDU will first have to find a new and able leader and then go on to either defend its territory in the center or carve out new support more toward the right.

It is not just the leadership of Germany that is at stake. The next German chancellor will play a pivotal role in leading the EU at one of its most challenging moments, with Brexit, uncertain ties with the US (especially if American President Donald Trump gets re-elected later this year) and a rising Russia and China playing high stake games in and around Europe.

In many ways, Merkel’s last years in power resemble the final years of her predecessors, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroeder. Just like Merkel, both Kohl and Schroeder had such a grip over their parties and the nation that finding an able successor seemed an impossible task almost right up to the point that they had to retire.

In the earlier days perhaps, Germany could have dealt with the uncertainty over leadership and managed to deal with difficult transitions after a long and successful rule by powerful politicians. However, in today’s world, which is full of external uncertainties and where the power dynamics work in much more complex ways, no nation can afford to have a power vacuum.

If Merkel is not able to rapidly find an able successor and ensure a smooth transition, her 16-year-long reign, which was stellar in many ways, could end up being best remembered for the vacuum that she left behind.

 • Ranvir Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.

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