The European Parliament (EP) elections late in May 2019 seem to have brought greater ideas of change within some of the European Union’s leading member states than in the European Parliament itself. In Germany alone, the poll results have had an overall chastening effect, heralding many shifts within the leading parties.
The vote share of the ruling coalition partners – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a historically centre-right conservative party, and Social Democratic Party (SPD), traditionally the party of the working classes – fell, but not entirely to the benefit of the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Democracy (AfD) party. The environmentalist Greens, with their leftist push on tax and social policy, have been the biggest beneficiaries in this election and this strengthens their position in Germany further. The Greens gained 9.3% of the vote and 10 seats. The CDU lost 7.5% of the vote and six seats and the SPD lost 11.4% vote share and 11 seats. The AfD won 10% of the vote with a 3.9% increase in votes and a gain of four seats. (Several small parties win seats as Germany does not adopt a minimum threshold for seats in the EP.)
The results of the elections set off once more the debate on whether the SPD should remain in the coalition since the CDU is destroying its (the SPD’s) political base and pushing it into third place behind the Greens. The coalition between the CDU and the SPD is due to last until the national elections in 2021, but the question of its longevity arose after SPD leader Andrea Nahles resigned over poor performance in the EP elections. Nahleses’ resignation could lead to an SPD exit – and possibly an early election – though Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s choice of successor, has denied that the agreement between the CDU and SPD to stay allies till 2021 will erode now.
All eyes are on a June 24 meeting of the SPD when members may elect a new leader and devise a different direction for the party. Currently though, a new three-member team, consisting of Manuela Schwesig, state premier in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern; Malu Dreyer, premier in Rhineland-Palatinate; and Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, party leader in the Hesse, in the west-central part of Germany, will lead the SPD.
In all scenarios, a diminution of Merkel’s position is evident, but a clear alternative to her is not emerging. If the SPD withdraws from the coalition and forces an election on Germany, it will lose further and the AfD and Greens will gain. In that event, a Greens-led coalition could emerge. Merkel may therefore presciently try positioning Kramp-Karrenbauer as leader to renegotiate a coalition with the Greens, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), advocates of a free-market economy, to keep parliament going till 2021 when prospects may stabilise. Will that be a signal for an early Merkel exit?
Merkel and the German story
Merkel has held the German story together for about a decade. When she took over as Chancellor in 2005, ousting her mentor, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, she consolidated her power base in the party and the regional states. She could not get a majority for the CDU over three elections, but she stuck to her Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and had partnerships with the Greens, the FDP, and, most importantly, with her main antagonist, the SPD, at varied times and ran successful coalitions.
Since 2015, several cracks began to appear in her popularity, in Germany’s economic progress and the European Union. Her decision in 2015 to allow in up to 1 million refugees from various Muslim countries as a humanitarian gesture proved to be a turning point in her political fortunes. Between 2016-2017, the CDU lost vote share in several state elections, including Merkel’s own, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. The SPD was a loser too; the AfD the biggest beneficiary.
Then came Brexit in 2016, which shocked Merkel; Germany now feared the loss of an ally in Europe and also the anticipated negative economic impact of Brexit.
In the general election of 2018, Merkel suffered a defeat through a large vote loss, but the CDU still emerged as the single largest party. She failed to show the leadership required to form a coalition with the Greens and the FDP, leading to a new partnership, in the face of the SPD’s decline.
Merkel has a reasonably stable government at the moment, but more and more, it appears that the time of reckoning is upon her. Supporters and dissenters within her own party have had a show-down. Initially, there was a contest for the leader of the party in Parliament in September 2018 in which her candidate, Volker Kauder, was defeated by Ralph Brinkhaus, a former chairman of the Germany-India Parliamentary Friendship Group. Kauder had led the CDU in Parliament for 13 years.
Shortly thereafter, the CDU took a beating in Bavaria and in the Hessen state elections. In Bavaria, the CSU, her ally, suffered more, and in Hessen, the CDU lost 11%. They retained a coalition with the more successful Greens to keep control of the two states.
Prior to the leadership contest at the CDU Party Congress, Merkel had announced her decision to step down from the leadership of the Party which she has held since 2000. Her candidate, Kramp-Karrenbauer, the former president of Saarland, who was brought in as the secretary general of the party, managed a narrow victory. Thus, Merkel established a line of succession within her own party which may survive since the designated successor does not have differences with the leaders of other parties and even within the CDU the way Merkel now does. Whenever the change takes place Kramp-Karrenbauer will be received with a sigh of relief.
The rest of Europe may not have the same reaction to the successor. Merkel remains Europe’s tallest leader and the go-to person to resolve issues. She had reconstructed the Franco-German partnership when Emmanuel Macron came on to the scene since her relationship with former French president Francois Hollande had suffered from systemic contradictions due to the two leaders following different domestic economic policies.
The recently signed Franco-German treaty in Aachen (January 2019) – a reinforcement of sorts of the Elysee Treaty signed 56 years ago – was symbolic of a renewed partnership which, despite the absence of the UK, aims to steer the European project.
Ruptures and divisions
A greater concern for Europe is the challenge of right-wing governments, particularly like the one in Italy. The ugly spat between France and Italy, leading to the recall of the French ambassador from Rome for the first time since the end of the Second World War, shows one of many cleavages rupturing European unity. Merkel’s open-hearted refugee policy has been another, which also caused her party to suffer political losses. She is aware that her departure from leadership should not be at a time when her political fortunes diminish further.
She is likely to look for reasonable stability for Germany and its policies before announcing her exit. Her aim will be to go on her own terms with a nominated successor to carry forth her legacy, not be pushed out by her own party like she had done to Helmut Kohl. Time is not on her side because if she would like her successor to consolidate her position and learn to deal with allies among Germany’s parties, she needs to quit by later this year.
A constraint in her doing so may be the forthcoming municipal elections in 10 regional states followed by three state elections in Eastern Germany in which, given the weakness of the CDU, the AfD is likely to further erode its political space with the Greens making possible gains. Merkel, who would not like to be subjected to the ignominy of another poor performance by the CDU in the regional elections (in September 2019), is likely to bow out late summer since the elections to the European Parliament are over.
The CDU-led group, the European People’s Party, has suffered losses, but Merkel could well have her candidate, Manfred Weber, of the CSU, her Bavarian ally, installed as president of the European Commission instead of the departing Jean-Claude Juncker. Macron is resisting this for now. That nomination could be the right time for a small high with which Merkel could signal an end to her chancellorship. Brexit, though, could be the spoiler in this scenario.
Yet, Merkel has reasons to be confident: having brought in a successor for the Party leadership, the CDU will retain some of her strengths. Despite losses in vote share she has kept the CDU in power in Berlin and in many other states. Her European leadership is still valued.
A summer of change in Germany looks possible – if not fully probable.
Gurjit Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to Germany. He is currently the Chair of the CII Task Force on the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.
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