When Angela Merkel was elected to the helm of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), 9/11 hadn’t happened, the Lehman Brothers still existed, and the release of the first iPhone was seven years away.
Eighteen years on, after winning four elections as German Chancellor, Merkel announced on Oct. 29 that she will step down as the chair of her party in December. With that, the leader who had come to be known as “Mutti” (Mommy) to Germans, entered the twilight of her career.
Merkel knows her time is up: Germany needs new political blood. It is not known when she will go exactly, but it is unlikely that she will serve the remainder of her term until 2021. A former scientist, Merkel entered politics at the age of 35 and has always sought the pragmatic solution in her approach to politics. And so she is now carefully planning her exit. Aware Germany needs new political blood, she would rather jump than be pushed.
Merkel learned from the mistakes of Helmut Kohl, who served as Chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998. As his one time protégée, she publicly called for Kohl’s removal in 1999 when he was tangled in a campaign finance scandal and could not let go. And for his part, Kohl made the mistake underestimating Merkel, a woman he referred to as “my girl.” Others also made the same mistake about the daughter of the Lutheran clergyman from East Germany.
Merkel went on to become German Chancellor in 2005, winning three more elections in 2009, 2013 and 2017. She led one of the world’s richest democracies for 13 years during a period of incredible flux—not only for Germany, but for the E.U. and beyond. As many of her counterparts came and went, she witnessed the 2008 financial crash; the Eurozone crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the Arab Spring; the brutalities of the Syrian war; the migrant crisis; the election of Donald Trump; and Brexit.
On the domestic front, Merkel presided mostly over a period of relative peace, stability and prosperity in Germany. But recent events made her Chancellorship untenable. The trouble began when Merkel made the decision to open Germany’s borders to the millions of refugees travelling through Europe in the summer of 2015. Within a few months, over a million refugees and asylum seekers had arrived in Germany.
The political fallout was immense. It galvanized the far-right populist AfD party, who surged in last-year’s national election, winning seats in Germany’s Bundestag for the first time. Meanwhile, the traditional parties, Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats (the SPD) hemorrhaged support.
This trend has played out in recent local elections in the states of Bavaria and Hesse too. Aside from the AfD, the other big winners are the Greens. The Greens and the AfD pose diametrically opposing visions of what Germany society should be, on issues from refugee policy to the environment.
And so, German politics is becoming more splintered and polarized—a phenomenon spreading across much of the West. Issues of identity, religion and race are likely to dominate the years ahead.
Germany becoming more inward looking is bad news for leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, who was hoping that his tenure in the Elysée might coincide with political will in Berlin to pave the road towards further integration in the eurozone. Merkel’s departure will be felt even more profoundly against the backdrop of a geopolitical context in which we see a return to nativism; the politics of exclusion and fear; the rise of autocracy and the very questioning of democracy itself as a form of governance.
It’s also bad news for those who hailed Merkel (whether rightly or wrongly) as the leader of the free world. The question, when she leaves, is how much of what she stood for will remain.
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