Photo Gallery: Merkel's Last Act


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.

Unstoppable Momentum?

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.

Poll: The Need to Change Course

Poll: The Need to Change Course


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.

'Very Displeased'

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.

Internal Criticism

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."

The Question Dividing Germany

It wasn't entirely clear who the target of her critique was: The AfD, Seehofer or Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the SPD who has recently begun distancing himself from the chancellor. Perhaps she meant all of them together. But Merkel was visibly pleased that she had found a new argument to defend herself.

Still, though, it is an argument that fits well with the strategy Merkel has long used to justify her policies. The chancellor sees herself as being synonymous with rationality, and those who don't follow her are considered to be insufficiently committed to democracy. She has often pushed through policies by claiming there is no alternative, but it is an argument that has done great damage to Germany's political culture. One reason the debate over refugee policy is so poisonous is that it has been framed so simplistically. Are you for or against Merkel? The question has divided the country, German conservatives and the media.

It would have been helpful to many in the CDU if Merkel had allowed at least a bit of differentiation. But it is now too late to change course, says CDU parliamentarian Veronika Bellmann from Saxony. "Now, people wouldn't even accept a 180-degree reversal anymore," she says. Like other members of parliament, Bellmann speaks of a 50-50 division in the party base. One half is behind Merkel, the other is not. "Respect for the chancellor is the only thing preventing a revolt."

Merkel's inflexibility is exasperating conservative politicians in many state chapters. Wolfgang Reinhart, CDU floor leader in the Baden-Württemberg state parliament, demands that Merkel take the concerns of Horst Seehofer and the CSU more seriously. "It's not as if the warnings were all completely unjustified. When a partner demands more restrictive policies, you can't just ignore it. You have to engage in dialogue," Reinhart says. "The success of the right-wing populists is partially the result of Berlin policies." Such sentiments sound like they could have come straight from Seehofer.

But how much criticism finds its way to Merkel? She has always been distrustful and over the course of her tenure, her inner circle has only grown tighter. That is another parallel with Kohl. Critics among conservative parliamentarians have taken to calling the Chancellery "the bunker." It is run by Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier, who is responsible for managing government business and for negotiating both within the governing coalition and with Germany's states. Many within the CSU, though, believe he is the real author of Merkel's decision to open the country up to the refugees.

When Altmaier was first elected to parliament in 1994, he took positions that only found much support at the time within the Green Party. He supported ending Germany's ban on dual citizenship, for example, and wanted to introduce penalties for marital rape. The CSU saw him as a leftist nutcase and Helmut Kohl penalized him by completely ignoring him. Making matters even more difficult, he only had the support of the tiny, Saarland chapter, which meant that he didn't have high hopes for much of a career.

By the early 2000s, Altmaier had come to terms with the fact that his path to the top would remain blocked and he even thought about returning to EU politics, where he had worked for a time after he completed his legal studies. But then Merkel arrived, a godsend for his career. She appointed him parliamentary state secretary, then handed him a senior post in the CDU fraction and then made him a government minister.

Powerful Opponents

His office in the Chancellery has an enormous window providing a view of the Reichstag, the seat of Germany's parliament. With Merkel, he has come further than he ever dared dream. And with her, he can now implement policies that were widely considered to be leftist blather just a few years ago.

Altmaier, though, has powerful opponents. One of them is Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who thinks the congenial man from Saarland isn't sufficiently ruthless. Another is Interior Minister de Maizière, who believes that a chief of staff should spend more time studying policy details and less time on the talk shows.

But as long as Merkel remains loyal, nothing can happen to Altmaier -- and the chancellor values that loyalty. His ability to reframe even the largest of disasters as being nothing more than minor setbacks makes life easier for her. When he spoke on the Monday following the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania election at a festival in the Bavarian town of Gillamoos, he couldn't praise the chancellor highly enough: "Germany is a great country because in Germany, we don't have just one Angela Merkel, we have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Angela Merkels. In every village, in every city."

Merkel has enough detractors, so she values having Altmaier's sunny disposition in the Chancellery. When he celebrated his 58th birthday in mid-June, he found a handwritten letter on his desk. It began with the words: "Dear Peter." The letterhead read: "The Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany."

Like every successful politician, Altmaier keeps close tabs on power shifts that could become detrimental to his position. If Merkel remains in the Chancellery, he will likely become conservative floor leader in the next legislative period. If she falls, there is a risk that he will have to take a seat on the back bench in the Bundestag.

The chief of staff of the Chancellery is the last of a line of liberal, young CDU politicians that Merkel brought into her circle when she became chair of the party in 2000 to help her prevail over her conservative adversaries. Two others who have survived politically from this era are Merkel's secretary, Beate Baumann, and her former spokeswoman, Eva Christiansen, who is responsible for political communication at the Chancellery. Like Altmaier, they've been shaped by the long battle that Merkel has waged against the establishment.

Modernizing the Party

That's one of the most significant parallels between Merkel and Kohl: Both modernized their party against resistance from the old guard. Back in the 1960s, Kohl sparked outrage at a state party conference in Rhineland-Palatinate because he spoke out in favor of public condom vending machines. "You don't seriously believe that my grandmother would have had 13 children if she had taken the pill, do you?" he once said in an interview with his ghostwriter Heribert Schwan.

In 1969, Kohl was elected governor of Rhineland-Palatinate and immediately set out to modernize the state. He eliminated state-run parochial schools that his predecessors had insisted on keeping and he demanded that his young social minister create the country's first kindergarten law stipulating government-subsidized day care for young children. As governor, Kohl pulled the backward state into modern times, building not only highways but also establishing social-welfare centers. He quickly gained a reputation as the leader of the more liberal wing of the party.

Like Merkel, Kohl also fostered a group of young, independent thinking party colleagues, who he then elevated into high office. The group included future German President Richard von Weizsäcker, who helped draft an influential 1965 Protestant Church memorandum calling for the recognition of the Oder-Neiss border between East Germany and Poland set after World War II, a step that helped to improve tense relations between West Germany and its eastern neighbors. It was a breaking of taboos with conservative CDU circles.

During the first phase of his tenure as chancellor, Kohl introduced both child-raising allowances and parental leave. It was a modernization push in the party that would first be seen again when Merkel became chancellor.

When she took over as party chair from Wolfgang Schäuble in 2000, Merkel was at first more cautious than Kohl had been. In contrast to Kohl, she wasn't as deeply rooted in the party. In fact, the reason that the eastern German politician even had the fortune of rising to the top was that the CDU's leadership had been embroiled in a donations and slush fund scandal. Once in the position, she found herself surrounded by enemies. The party's parliamentary group was headed by Friedrich Merz and Roland Koch, who had run successfully to become governor of Hesse on a campaign against dual citizenship for Turks, was on the party's national board. Both were very powerful Merkel adversaries.

Merkel didn't really start modernizing the party until 2005, when she became chancellor. She appointed Ursula von der Leyen as her family minister and, through the expansion of government-subsidized daycare facilities, ensured that women would have an easier time balancing work and family life. Like Kohl, Merkel had to go up against heavy resistance, but over time, she sidelined those who stood in her way. Over the years, they all fell from power -- Merz, Koch and others.

'I Don't Want To Be a Half-Dead Wreck'

Merkel's plan was never to step down the way Kohl did. During the final phase of his leadership, Kohl had been grumpy in his cabinet meetings, which Merkel experienced firsthand as his environment minister. At the end of the 1990s, in a conversation she had with German photographer Herlinde Koelbl, Merkel said, "I want at some point to find the right time to leave politics. That is much harder than I imagined it would be earlier. But I do not want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics."

Kohl also wanted to leave politics at a time of his own choosing. He would later state that he had wanted to step down in 1996. "I thought 14 years were enough," he said. "I had also achieved enough." But then, a feeling of irreplaceability crept over the chancellor. Internally, he harbored doubts that his handpicked successor, Schäuble, would have the support of the FDP, the CDU's junior coalition partner. He also feared the introduction of the European common currency would fall through without his leadership. "I have to push it through," he said. For Merkel, refugee policy has become what the euro was for Kohl.

For a long time, Merkel had little more than a derisive smile for Kohl's tendency to always see himself in historical terms. But at a national CDU party conference last December, she did the same in justifying her refugee policies. Referencing Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Merkel said he hadn't said, "We're choosing a little bit of freedom," but rather, "We're choosing freedom." And Chancellor Ludwig Erhard hadn't said, "Prosperity for almost everyone." He said "Prosperity for everyone." And Kohl didn't say that he wanted to create flourishing economies in some regions in eastern Germany, he wanted it for all of them.

As a consequence, she continued, she wouldn't be stepping back from her statement: "We can do it." The party conference proved a major success for Merkel, with delegates praising her with standing ovations. But the subsequent consequences have been disastrous. Merkel had placed her refugee policies in the holy shrine of Christian Democracy. And that which is sacred is untouchable.

Searching for a Legacy

Unlike the presidential democracies in France and the United States, Germany does not have term limits. Along with that comes the inherent danger that chancellors who achieve great things early in office can squander their legacy at the end of their tenure. Adenauer, postwar West Germany's first chancellor, was at the height of his power in the mid-1950s. He had firmly anchored the Federal Republic of Germany as a part of the West, advanced efforts toward reconciliation with Israel and promoted the European Community. The country experienced fast-paced growth.

Voters thanked him for it in the 1957 election, bestowing his party with an absolute majority in parliament. But afterward, Adenauer appeared to lose his touch and began fighting with his own handpicked successor Ludwig Erhard. After initially announcing he wanted to become president and pave the way for an appropriate successor in the Chancellery, Adenauer backpedaled. He considered himself to be irreplaceable, particularly in foreign policy. He had also recognized that the role of president, as glamorous as it may be, was largely a symbolic office with little power.

Adenauer began badmouthing Erhard, saying he was unfit and lacked the dignity to represent Germany. Increasingly, voters saw him as aloof. When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, he waited a long time before visiting the city and he only retained the Chancellery that year by a narrow margin and only with the support of an FDP party that had actually done what it could to distance itself from the chancellor. Adenauer had to promise that he would step down before the end of his term in exchange for FDP backing.

Is Merkel now suffering the same fate as Kohl and Adenauer? Her problem is that she hasn't achieved anything lasting. That's also one reason she will likely seek another term. Adenauer's legacy included the alignment with the West, Kohl's was German reunification, Schröder's was the structural reforms that provided the basis of today's economic growth. But what will be the lasting legacy of Merkel's refugee policies?

Merkel has offered a home to people in a desperate situation. Germany took in over 300,000 Syrians last year, a humanitarian act that would not have happened without Merkel. But with the opening of the borders, tens of thousands of people entered the country who weren't fleeing wars, but instead the precarious economic situation in their home countries. It is estimated that 70,000 Albanians, 30,000 Kosovars and 10,000 Moroccans also came. There is currently no mechanism in place to allow people who are truly in need of protection to travel legally to Europe.

The Anti-Merkel Party

One of the major factors that drove voters to the AfD was a feeling the country has lost control. The latest survey conducted by German pollster TNS Forschung shows that 21 percent of Germans could imagine voting for the AfD in the next general election.

At the AfD's election night party last Sunday in Schwerin, the head of the party's Thuringia state chapter disparagingly thanked Merkel. "Every one of us knows, of course, that the people here in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania voted on the disastrous policies of the dictator chancellor in Berlin." It was followed by chants of "Merkel must go, Merkel must go."

For AfD head Frauke Petry, Merkel is a hated figure against whom the entire party has closed ranks. No other person evokes so much anger in the party. Even the party's name, Alternative for Germany, is a reaction to Merkel, who once said there was "no alternative" to her European policies. At this point, AfD could rename itself the AMP, for Anti-Merkel Party. Right now, Merkel is doing more to mobilize voters for other parties than for her own.

Shrinking Influence -- In Germany and Europe

Merkel's influence has also shrunk in Europe -- and this despite the fact that the German economy is doing well and the British will soon be leaving the EU . The chancellor's refugee policies have diminished Germany's role in Europe to that of an outsider.

Next Friday, this new state of affairs will be palpable when she travels to Bratislava, Slovakia for a special EU summit. Europe urgently needs a functioning system for taking in refugees, but Merkel affronted most of her partners with her uncontrolled opening of the border and it is now highly unlikely that any reasonable compromise can be found.

The German chancellor overestimated the willingness of neighboring countries to show solidarity by sharing the burdens that came with her open border policy. At the same time, that policy also put her counterparts in other European capitals under considerable domestic pressure. The images of long lines of refugees and camps blew fresh wind into the sails of populist currents and parties all across the Continent.

French President Hollande is terrified of the national election in his country coming up next spring, which could see the rise of Marine Le Pen and her Front National party. In Britain, many view the refugee crisis as a self-inflicted problem that the German chancellor brought to the Continent. In a study for the University of Sheffield, Cologne-based sociologist Wolfgang Streeck attributed the Brexit vote in large part to the refugee crisis.

Merkel was long the most powerful woman in Europe. Now, though, Germany's EU allies are looking for her weaknesses and exploiting them. In finance and economic policy, they are now seeking compensation from Merkel for the burdens her refugee policy has allegedly placed on their shoulders. The stability pact, once pushed through by Germany so that the euro crisis wouldn't end in a debt disaster, stands in ruins.

At a meeting three weeks ago on the Italian aircraft carrier Garibaldi with Matteo Renzi and François Hollande, the Italian prime minister and the French president were apparently successful in softening her rejection of the southern countries' desire to take on more debt.

It is no coincidence that Merkel is now searching for common ground with Renzi. Along with Greece, Italy bears the greatest burden of the refugee crisis. Whereas the number of refugees coming to Greece has sunk as a result of Merkel's deal with Ankara, thousands of Libyans are still attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. If Italy were to begin sending them northwards as it did last year, the debate over the closure of the Brenner Pass would immediately be rekindled and borders would be closed across Europe. The survival of the border-free Schengen zone would again be under at risk.

That is the same threat that emanates from Turkish President Erdogan: He can open and close his borders at will. The Turks insist that they are strictly monitoring the route across the Aegean to the Greek islands, but the attentiveness of the Turkish coast guard would appear to waver significantly.

'Stimulus for the AfD'

Merkel's most dangerous opponent, however, is not the Turkish president. It is Seehofer, who staff members in the Chancellery refer to as "our Erdogan." The conflict  between Merkel and Seehofer's CSU is becoming more intense by the day and this weekend, he has invited party leaders to a meeting at which he intends to gain approval for a paper full of demands that Merkel rejects: burqa ban, migration limits and the elimination of dual citizenship.

Almost daily, Seehofer receives party allies in his office who push him to distance the CSU from the CDU. "The CSU has to enter the parliamentary election campaign with the most independence possible -- from both a personnel and content perspective," says former Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer, who is a senior member of the CSU. "That means: No joint campaign platform and Horst Seehofer, with his importance and authority as head of the party, must head up the CSU state parliamentary list as its lead candidate." Ramsauer wants to see Seehofer join the cabinet to ensure that the CSU is able to have sufficient influence.

Seehofer, for his part, would like to prevent an open break with the CSU's sister party. By the end of October, the CSU head hopes to find agreement with the CDU. But without a sign that Merkel is willing to revise her approach to refugee policy, it seems unlikely that agreement will be reached. "It doesn't help when we just keep telling people: We did everything right, you just don't understand it. Doing so is a stimulus program for the AfD," says Seehofer.

Will CSU Run against Merkel?

Merkel, though, doesn't want to give in to Seehofer -- not this time. And now, the enmity between the two threatens to destroy the partnership between the CDU and CSU. Of course Seehofer is aware that a conclusive break with Merkel would only help the political competition. It would be a unique spectacle were Seehofer, as lead candidate for the CSU, to run against Merkel for the Chancellery.

Yet exactly that scenario is being seriously considered in the Bavarian state capital building in Munich. If the sister parties aren't able to reach an agreement prior to the CDU party convention in Essen in December, Seehofer plans to skip it. "Without consensus, my appearance would be nothing more than a media spectacle," he says. Staying away, though, would be a significant affront: For over 60 years, it has been tradition that the CSU speaks at the CDU party convention. Still, it would be just one more step in the ongoing escalation of hostilities.

Another idea currently circulating among CSU leaders is for the party to pull out of the government shortly before next year's parliamentary elections as a way of distancing itself from the CDU and its waning support.

Can Merkel still prevent the break? She hopes that the refugee issue will finally cede into the background by next year at the latest if the number of newcomers remains low. Merkel hopes to be able to defuse the political problem by playing down its importance. That, though, can only work if the CSU plays along, which is far from a sure thing.

There, though, she can agree with Helmut Kohl. In the late stages of his time in office, as his popularity continued to wane, he would often ask his visitors: "Who else could do this job?"

Reported by Jan Friedmann, Gunther Latsch, Ann-Katrin Müller, Peter Müller, Alexander Neubacher, Ralf Neukirch, René Pfister, Jan Puhl, Christoph Scheuermann, Christoph Schult, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmid and Steffen Winter


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 37/2016 (September 10th, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

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