Climate Change in Germany Merkel Might Lose After All

With just six months until Germans go to the polls, Angela Merkel's re-election is looking less certain by the week. Martin Schulz is a dangerous adversary and his Social Democrats are full of the kind of enthusiasm that the chancellor's party lacks. By SPIEGEL Staff

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In November 1998, Angela Merkel gave an interview to the photographer and writer Herlinde Koelbl. It was a moment of uncertainty in Merkel's career, coming as it did just after Chancellor Helmut Kohl, on whose cabinet Merkel had served for seven years, lost that year's general election. Kohl had failed to recognize that Germans had grown weary of his leadership and now, his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), found itself in the opposition.

Merkel was lucky. The new CDU head Wolfgang Schäuble had chosen her as his secretary general. But she resolved at the time to not allow her career to end as Kohl's had.

"At some point, I want to find the right moment to withdraw from politics," she said in the interview with Koelbl. "That is much more difficult than I used to imagine. But I don't want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics behind. Rather, I would like to pursue something else after a phase of boredom."

Has Merkel missed the right moment? Has she stumbled into the Kohl trap?

Last Monday, Merkel was sitting in the headquarters of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to her CDU, looking as though she were a guest at her own funeral. Next to her was CSU head Horst Seehofer who, after months of castigating the chancellor for her refugee policy and threatening to withhold his support for her re-election campaign, had finally decided to back Merkel.

"I …... um ... as head of the CSU ... um ... can inform you that ... um ... I ... um, um ... have declared my support ... um ... and that of the CSU ... um ... for German Chancellor Angela Merkel ... um, um ... for the coming election campaign and for her candidacy as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany ... um, um ... with the support of the party leadership and the executive committee."

A Liberated SPD

It was by far the least cheerful launch of an election campaign in recent German history. And if the conservative campaign is as stuttering as Seehofer's endorsement, then Merkel might as well hand over the keys to the Chancellery to her Social Democratic (SPD) challenger Martin Schulz right now.

What a shift! Just three weeks ago, it looked as though the only intrigue in the coming election would be how badly the SPD would lose to Merkel and whether the party would end up in the opposition instead of in its current role as junior coalition partner. Almost all Social Democrats expected that erstwhile party head Sigmar Gabriel would lead the SPD in the campaign as chancellor candidate -- and lead the party into certain defeat. Instead, though, Gabriel unexpectedly resigned and handed over the reins to Schulz -- and the party suddenly seems liberated.

Is the Merkel Era approaching its end? Is the mood changing? The numbers haven't yet become clear and surveys aren't the same thing as election results -- as we learned from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But the country's political mood is changing and even people in Merkel's orbit say that "the trend is clear." It is currently on the side of the SPD.

According to the pollsters at Infratest dimap, fully 50 percent of Germans want the next government to be led by the SPD, a result that is 14 percentage points higher than prior to the last general election in 2013. Only 39 percent want to see a government led by Merkel's conservatives. Schulz is also well ahead of Merkel on the question regarding which candidate voters would choose were they able to vote for individual candidates instead of parties. It has been almost 20 years since the SPD has held a similar lead on that question. That was in March 1998 when Gerhard Schröder announced his candidacy against Helmut Kohl -- a campaign he would go on to win.


When Schulz showed up last Monday evening in the textile factory in Bocholt, a city in Germany's far west near the Dutch border, he was received with rhythmic applause as supporters held signs aloft reading: "Schulz Now!" and "Time for Martin!"

Turning Them Away at the Doors

The resuscitation of the country's oldest political party is visible everywhere: The North Rhine-Westphalia chapter of the SPD received 140 registrations for a seminar on campaign stands despite having expected just 25. The number of new members signing up is higher than it has been in recent memory, with over 4,600 new members registering online since Schulz's selection as the party's candidate.

In the southwestern German city of Freiburg, the local SPD office ran out of party books for new members and the party has encountered the same problem in the states of Saarland and Lower Saxony. When Schulz visited a local chapter in the northeast of Hamburg last week, hundreds of members wanted to attend. The party changed venues but there was still only room for about 100 people. It has been a long time since the SPD has had to turn people away at the doors.

Among conservatives, concerns are mounting. "One can have an effect on survey numbers, but it is extremely difficult to reverse a change in mood," says CSU head Horst Seehofer.

Merkel's success had long come at the expense of the SPD. The center-left party suffered due to its chair Sigmar Gabriel -- because of his volatile nature and tendency to push away even those who wanted only the best for him. Now, Gabriel has stepped aside, a move for which he deserves credit. Doing so has placed the spotlight squarely on the weaknesses of the chancellor.

"In the 12th year of her tenure, Merkel is now experiencing the normal weariness with incumbents experienced by Adenauer in 1959-60, Kohl in the years following 1989 and Margaret Thatcher following 11 years as prime minister," says Andreas Rödder, a historian based in the city of Mainz. But it's not just that the electorate has grown tired of Merkel. She is also leading a conservative alliance that is more fractured than ever before. The CSU-CDU peace summit held in Munich a week ago is nothing more than a temporary cease-fire and Merkel's aura as a chancellor who is level-headed in times of crisis took a significant hit in the summer of 2015 when she opened the country's borders to refugees. It was an act of humanity, but it didn't just divide Germany, but also Europe. Indeed, the EU continues to suffer from Merkel's solitary decision even today.

Merkel's chancellorship is showing its wear and tear, and that is where the danger lies. It is often the case that the electorate's vote for a challenger is more of a vote against the incumbent. And it has long been true in Germany that political power erodes over time. Ludwig Erhard and Helmut Schmidt were discarded because they no longer followed their own parties. Helmut Kohl got driven out of office because, after 16 years in the Chancellery, he seemed like a monument to himself: gray and fossilized.

Boos and Whistles

Merkel was long able to profit from the fact that she rarely triggered strong emotions. She gently modernized the CDU, which allowed the party to attract a different group of voters. She appealed to young women and residents of large cities, constituencies that had never before voted for the CDU or CSU. Some conservative voters turned their backs on the party, but in sum she won over more voters than she repelled.

The refugee crisis, though, changed everything. Since the summer of 2015, Merkel has become extremely polarizing, not unlike Hillary Clinton was in the recent U.S. campaign. "There are now people who would rather chop off their hands than vote for Merkel," says one Merkel confidant. When the chancellor was campaigning in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania last summer ahead of elections in the state, she occasionally appeared only in front of hand-picked audiences because her speeches would otherwise have been drowned out by boos and whistles.

Schulz is profiting from this mood. Oddly, he has even been able to attract some supporters away from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party. Schulz is able to combine the habits of a populist with a center-left platform, including his commitment to the European Union and to the country's liberal refugee policies. Until recently, only the AfD offered a clear alternative to Merkel. Now, the Social Democrats are as well, at least in terms of political style. Their message is clear: Merkel has to go.

Falk Odrich, 66, was recently standing behind a stall at a weekend farmer's market in Frankfurt selling Spreewald pickles as a way of supplementing his limited pension. In 2014, he had campaigned on behalf of the AfD in Erfurt. "I distributed 40,000 pamphlets and stood for hours behind the AfD stand on the city's central square," he said. He thought at the time that the AfD was the party of normal people, but party officials had barely moved into Thuringian state parliament before you hardly saw them anymore, Odrich said. Björn Höcke, the party's floor leader in the Thuringian state Legislature, he complained, has increasingly become a rabble rouser -- most recently with his massively criticized calls for Germany to cast aside its World War II guilt. And now, with Schulz on the ticket for the Social Democrats, Odrich intends to join the party. "I already have a membership application at home."

Isn't he bothered by the fact that Schulz, to a greater degree than many other German politicians, backs the European Union and a humanitarian approach to the refugee issue? No, Odrich said, adding that he actually finds it good: Refugees, he said, should be fairly distributed throughout Europe and not just taken in by Germany. "That was Merkel's mistake, the fact that she opened the borders without first coordinating with other Europeans."

Schulz has become a figure of promise, embodying all kinds of hopes. He has never held a position in the German government, if you don't count his stint as mayor of a Würselen, a city with a population of 40,000 people on the border to the Netherlands. But Schulz has managed to leverage his years as Würselen's leader into a narrative of being a man of the people. "You won't find real life in the Bundestag," Schulz says, referring to the German parliament in Berlin. "You'll find it in city halls."

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peterscotts 02/14/2017
Surprised anyone thinks she's still got any chance, but it appears the main opposition is worse than her on the issue many Germans care about. Her insane invitation to the worlds refugees to come to Germany would have finished the leaders of most countries. To try and the force other countries to take them in the most belligerent terms bordered on the vindictive. Her actions proberbly tipped the balance in in the U.K. Referendum. The only problem is Shultz appears worse. 02/14/2017
2. Political Climate Change in Germany
The Chancellor made a serious mistake in case of open borders and free immigration, this in my opinion, and the lack of policy adjustments in the face of rejections at home and in the EU can now be termed to be self-inflicted damage. The opposition will not rest and remind the voters over and over. How will the voters react??? The candidates for the Chancellor's office are not without flaws, therefore the election result, as usual, will be a compromise... and no fully happy ending is in sight. Voters might also consider whether the "winner" will be able to re-build the ties to the US, our security blanket in a difficult, dangerous world. NATO without USA is nothing but a shell, and empty at that.
pwells1066 02/15/2017
3. Merkel vs Shultz
It has always seemed to me that Angela Merkel was a principled person with a sense of duty drawn from her Christian beliefs and experience. In her political role she has had to be pragmatic and appeared to be able to be pragmatic without breeching the boundaries of principle and her Christian beliefs. The plight of the Syrian refugees, many of them persecuted Christians proved too much for her and so her 'pragmatism' became subservient to her Christian beliefs. No one should condemn her for that! I have no idea what the popular mood is in Germany but have a great respect for the way in which the nation has developed during my own lifetime of 78 years. I wish the German people well and hope that they will find a middle way to suit their own people and our wider European civilisation. Please note that, as a Brexiteer, I consider myself a European by civilisation if not by politics.
distrak 02/15/2017
4. Political climate change?
It is hard to imagine any other country allowing their leaders to flout international and national law by opening the borders to hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants, criminals, welfare cheats, and real refugees in 2015. Hard to imagine that the people have not gotten rid of the government who have been absolutely incapable--or incompetent-- of keeping Germany secure, of deporting these thousands of illegal migrants, of doing anything concrete the past two years. The only thing one can say for Merkel is that people know where she stands. Shulz is vapid. Knows nothing but the "more EU!" garbage he has soaked up during his easy life in Brussels living fat off of taxpayer money. His biography is almost a joke. Trained as a bookseller? That must have been tough. Alcoholic, then over it. Couple years as a mayor in a beat-up village. Years of doing nothing in Brussels. Clear to see that the European political class is at the end of its useful life. What a loser this guy is. I doubt anything will change. Germans, or their system, don't have the nerve to make real changes, to make promises and follow up on them--like Trump is doing, for better or worse in the US. Remember, for example Trump saying that NATO was obsolete and wasn't paying its bills. Huge uproar by the pampered bureaucrats of NATO. Today, von der Leyen said, well...maybe it is time to pay up. All NATO countries promised to yearly pay 2% of GDP into a fund. After 8-10 years, only 5 NATO countries had met these objectives, and Germany wasn't one. He may be not PC, but he can also point out hypocrisy. Like NOT calling radical islamic terrorism what it is.
distrak 02/15/2017
5. No good choices
In reading again the details of the Tunisian terrorist case--allowed into Germany, not vetted, giving false names to 10 or more agencies, multiple IDs (probably welfare payments with each one), moving around from shelter to shelter, not staying in the Bundesland where he was supposed to stay (even though I am sure the government will tell you that most refugees follow the law), hiding out or getting money from a network of storefront mosques, selling drugs, etc...I don't know how anyone can support the CDU. They had this portfolio and completely botched it. Granted, these German agencies (BAMF, Police, Grenzpolizei) were given a hopeless task by Merkel...and given NO warning that this tsunami of crime and illegal migrants was going to come. Absolute irresponsibility. How can anyone support that? Granted, the EU did next to nothing about this illegal migration crime for years--letting the Italians soak it all up, but still.
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