Clinging to Power Is The Merkel Era Coming To an End?
Chancellor Merkel's refugee policies have divided the country and the right-wing populist AfD party is rapidly gaining support. Conservatives are calling on Merkel to change course, but she is refusing to admit fallibility. Could this be the end? By SPIEGEL Staff
There are days in the life of a chancellor when the chasm between the glamour of the geopolitical stage and the political squalor back home is despairingly vast. Last Sunday was such a day for Angela Merkel.
Shortly before 10 a.m. local time, the German chancellor's Airbus touched down gently at Hangzhou airport, a red-carpet rolling up as the plane slowed to a stop. Just 200 meters away, Air Force One was parked and behind it stood French President François Hollande's aircraft. With engines roaring, the jumbo carrying Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe taxied past. On this September morning, the Hangzhou airport had become the parking lot of global politics.
The leaders had come to the Chinese city for the two-day G-20 summit. As Merkel strode past soldiers with fixed bayonets to her waiting sedan, she was facing a busy couple of days. Even before the summit officially began, she held a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the same issues as ever: Syria, refugees and Islamic State. Then she quickly headed over to the Expo Center for a meeting with the other world leaders. This time, the focus was on possible stimulus measures for the global economy. Dinner was served at 7 p.m. at the Chinese government's guest house before the group took a boat ride on Yue Lake -- which Merkel followed with a one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The German leader would like to see the Kremlin chief put a stop to his ongoing meddling in Ukraine.
Finally, at 11 p.m., she grabbed for her phone. This time, though, it was not for a discussion with the likes of Obama, Erdogan or Hollande and the topic was not Syria, the war in Ukraine or the global economy. Rather, it was the state election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania being held that day. And the number she dialed was that belonging to Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's own Christian Democrats (CDU).
Back in Germany, it was only just after 5 p.m. and the polls hadn't even closed yet, but all forecasts were trending in the same, depressing direction -- toward a strong result for the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Despite their nominal political alliance, Seehofer has been one of the most vociferous critics of Merkel's refugee policies, widely considered to be one of the triggers for the rise of the AfD. On the phone, Merkel tried to mollify Seehofer, but he said merely: "I really can't say anything at the moment. I'm just speechless." Merkel ended the conversation knowing that the CSU head wasn't going to give her any peace.
It is an unparalleled drama. Just one year ago, Merkel was more popular than almost any chancellor who had come before, with her prudent foreign policy being a significant reason why. But then came the refugee crisis, and with it the accusation that Merkel was pursuing a kind of moral imperialism in Europe. Her partners in the EU abandoned her while back home, the AfD -- a party she thought she had already defeated -- began gaining support. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the AfD on Sunday even won more votes than the CDU -- the first time in German postwar history that a right-wing populist party attracted more votes than the center-right.
Are we witnessing the end of the Merkel era? Merkel appears to be determined to run once again for re-election, but among German conservatives, doubts are growing as to whether that is really a good idea. There hasn't as yet been an open revolt, but within the Chancellery, a combination of defiance and paranoia is spreading -- a development that is reminiscent of the final days of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's 16-year reign.
Last Friday, for example, SPIEGEL reported on the government's plans to distance itself from a bill to be passed in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, a resolution classifying the slaughter of the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century as genocide. The government was wary of exacerbating Berlin's tense relationship with Turkey, but many saw the gesture as Merkel kowtowing to Erdogan and the story made immediate waves. Merkel was furious. The plan had been for Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert to announce the government's position in a press conference. She immediately called Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a senior member of the Social Democrats (SPD), her center-left coalition partner, and accused his party, or even Steinmeier himself, of having been responsible for the leak in an effort to make her look bad.
Is it even still possible for Merkel to stop the erosion of her power? Many of her predecessors in the Chancellery were prepared to risk their office to defend their convictions. Helmut Schmidt pushed through the stationing of mid-range nuclear missiles in West Germany against significant opposition from his SPD party. Gerhard Schröder, likewise of the SPD, did the same with his deep welfare cuts. In that regard, there was an element of heroism in Merkel's decision on the night of Sept. 4, 2015 to open Germany's borders to refugees trapped in Hungary. Notorious for her hesitancy, Merkel finally seemed prepared to spend the political capital she had amassed over the years to stand up for her convictions. It was a courageous move and one that garnered her respect the world over.
But in the ensuing weeks and months, she was unable to find a way to impose order on the flood of refugees coming into the country, which resulted not only in significant hostility in Europe, but also among the German population. And the right-wing populist AfD has grown accordingly. It now has delegates in nine state parliaments and its shrill slogans have made it almost impossible to have a rational debate about immigration -- a debate that Germany badly needs to have.
The country seems paralyzed. In Merkel's eyes, her refugee policy has become core to her term in the Chancellery. It marks a moment when she didn't allow herself to be guided by tactical, political considerations. That, though, implies limits to her current room for maneuver -- because if she were to admit that she made mistakes, it would be akin to self-betrayal. That, at least, is how she sees it. And that's what makes the current impasse so hopeless.
Once the results from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were in, Merkel felt it necessary to make a statement, even though she was still at the G-20 summit in China. She prefers not to comment on domestic party politics from abroad since she makes such comments in her capacity as head of the CDU and not as head of the country. So, following her official G-20 press conference in the Hyatt, her staff prepared for her remarks by removing all symbols reminiscent of her role as chancellor: The backdrop with the G-20 logo and the flags of China, Germany and Europe. Even spokesman Seibert had to help.
Of course she isn't pleased with the result of the state vote, Merkel said, even allowing that she was "very displeased." But when a reporter asked if she would now change course, she couldn't resist a brief, derisive smirk. "I am happy to repeat once again that I consider the fundamental decisions we made in past months to have been correct," she intoned.
The late phases of a chancellor's term tend to be tortuous. Konrad Adenauer didn't want to go because he thought he was the only one capable of leading the country, only stepping aside for Ludwig Erhard after 14 long years in office. Helmut Kohl resisted retirement because he thought only he could push through the common currency in Europe. He was, in fact, so convinced that history needed him that he ignored all warnings of his impending defeat. In the end, the CDU fell in behind Kohl and sank with him in the 1998 elections.
Will history now repeat itself? Merkel has always been formidably agile. In her first campaign for the Chancellery, she promised to fundamentally reform Germany, but when she lost by a hair in the September 2005 vote, her ambitious plan disappeared into the party archives. Her promise to extend the lifetimes of Germany's nuclear reactors was likewise thrown overboard following the tsunami in Japan and ensuing meltdown in Fukushima.
Such about-faces, of course, left her open to accusations of opportunism, but no chancellor can remain in office long without a certain amount of malleability. And de facto, Merkel's refugee policies have long since been revised: Eastern Europe closed the Balkan route and Merkel herself ensured that Turkish border guards now stop refugees intent on making their way to Europe.
Although her actions tell a different story, she continues to insist that she did everything right. Her party allies watched with growing despair as Merkel decided to use the week before the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania to defend her decision to welcome the refugees -- in the form of an op-ed in the influential daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, television appearances on major broadcasters and, finally, in a two-page spread in the mass-circulation tabloid Bild. It was clear that helping her party in the upcoming vote was the last thing on her mind. More pressing was her need to be right -- just like Kohl in the latter phases of his tenure.
And just like then, it is only the backbenchers who have had the courage to voice vehement dissent. After all, they have the least to lose.
Last Monday at 9 a.m., Merkel joined a conference call with other CDU leaders. Because of the poor connection from China, she was difficult to understand, but the core of her message got through just fine: The results of the election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania may be regrettable, but she did not intend to make adjustments to her refugee policies as a result. After all, she said, the SPD had lost more votes than the CDU.
It was not an analysis that everyone agreed with. "We all lost to the AfD because when it comes to refugee policy, we are perceived as a block, to which AfD voters want to say: No thanks," says CDU member Jens Spahn, parliamentary state secretary in the Finance Ministry. Instead of just saying "we can do it," the CDU should think about "how we can get to a point where the people really believe that we can do it. And to a point where we know what is going on out there."
Once he gets going, Spahn can hardly be stopped. People were right, he says, to apprehensively ask why integration will work better this time around than it has in the past. You have to connect with voters on an emotional level, and not just with the facts, he adds. "If our answer is then a half-hearted burqa ban, our message just won't get through."
No one else criticizes the chancellor's policies as radically as Spahn, but even within the Merkel camp, there are those willing to admit that mistakes were made. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière finds fault with the fact that conservatives talk too much about refugees and not enough about other issues. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU governor of the state of Saarland, says that voters have lost "a bit of fundamental trust" in the party.
It's not that Merkel isn't trying to find a way out of the crisis. Indeed, she remains open to all ideas. On the flight back from the G-20 summit, Merkel was asked if she was concerned that politics have reached a post-fact era -- that parties like the AfD or politicians like Donald Trump have found success with slogans that are completely disconnected from reality. With an inquiring gaze, Merkel said that she first had to integrate "post-fact" into her vocabulary. But it was clear that the expression sparked her imagination.
In a speech to parliament two days later, she said: "When we begin participating in a situation where facts can be shoved aside, responsible and constructive answers on the issue are no longer possible. When we begin aligning ourselves, both linguistically and literally, with those who are not interested in a solution, we will ultimately lose our orientation."
- Part 1: Is The Merkel Era Coming To an End?
- Part 2: The Question Dividing Germany
- Part 3: 'I Don't Want To Be a Half-Dead Wreck'
- Part 4: Shrinking Influence -- In Germany and Europe