It was a sobering sort of victory for Angela Merkel. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, came in as the strongest bloc, with about 33 percent of the vote, according to exit polls. But that is still eight percent less than the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, received in 2013. “We reached our strategic goals,” the chancellor told an unenthusiastic crowd of supporters, one of which was that “no government can be formed against us.”
Hers indeed is the main prize of the evening: a fourth term. Having governed for 12 years and due to stay in power for another four (and possibly even more), she thus appears fated to enter the pantheon of Christian Democratic chancellors. Konrad Adenauer held the office for 14 years; Helmut Kohl for 16. Given that it was Mr. Kohl who gave “my girl” Angela Merkel her start in politics, there must be satisfaction in that.
Ms. Merkel can also feel vindicated belatedly for the stance she took that overshadowed this election: her decision almost exactly two years ago, during the refugee crisis of September 2015, to suspend — not de jure but de facto — the so-called Dublin regulation that would have allowed her to send all the refugees then arriving back to the EU countries they had first set foot in. By taking them in, she instead emphasized Germany’s “welcome culture” to those in dire need, and specifically the Syrian civilians fleeing their inferno. But she also created a new backlash against not only migrants but also herself. For a few tenuous weeks, there was even talk of a putsch from within her own party.
All that is now history. Yes, integrating the more than a million refugees who have come since September 2015 will be the challenge of a generation. But Germans “will manage” as she put it in 2015, in a phrase that her foes have used uncountable times as a cudgel against her. The refugee crisis now appears under control. Germany has been restored to the order its citizens demand.
Ms. Merkel’s behaviour in that refugee crisis should have buried a misconception that has spread about her: that she is pragmatic to a fault and malleable enough to be amorphous. This is expressed in the German neologism ‘merkeln’, a verb that connotes muddling through, equivocating, evading commitment. But what Ms. Merkel has displayed in recent years is not merkeln but prioritization. When the stakes are low she is flexible — for instance, when she had to mollify her leftist coalition partner, the Social Democrats, by assenting to a minimum wage and rent controls. But when the stakes are high she is principled — as when accepting refugees running from hell, or staring down Vladimir Putin for violating the borders of sovereign European nations.
So it is not remiss to consider her today’s leader of the liberal international order. She herself has called that idea “grotesque”, but that is de rigueur for a modern German chancellor, in a nation where keeping a low profile is part of raison d’etat. Her role as leader is not premised on German power as such (which is middling, in any event). Rather, it is based on the simple observation that she is the last international leader of stature who openly espouses multilateralism, cooperation, law and human rights as axioms of global governance, or whatever is left of it. In a world of Trumps, Kims, Putins, and Erdogans, of nationalists and bullies and populists and prima donnas, Ms. Merkel — along with France’s Emmanuel Macron, perhaps — is our last best hope.
That should not distract from the reality that as of today, September 24, Ms. Merkel is also in effect a lame duck. She herself once said that she doesn’t want to be carried out of office “a half-dead wreck”. And yet she has so far eliminated or sidelined any potential successor in her party. In her fourth term she will no longer have that luxury. Part of leadership is planning for succession, and grooming a new generation of leaders. At present the ranks of hopefuls within her party, and across the political spectrum, look woefully unconvincing.
The other part of Germany’s new political reality is that the republic has shifted right. In the outgoing parliament, leftist parties had a majority of seats, and could in theory have formed a coalition against Ms. Merkel. In the next Bundestag, even the combined left forces will be in the minority. That is because of the dismal showing of the Social Democrats, Ms. Merkel’s coalition partners, who received less than 21 percent of the vote, their worst showing since 1949.
The big new force in parliament, as the third-largest, is instead a four-year-old populist party on the far right. And this, too, is part of Ms. Merkel’s legacy: “Alternative-less” is how she described many of her policies over the years, thus spawning a protest movement calling itself the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD). Its pitch is resentful, anti-immigrant, anti-American and often plainly nationalist. But among eastern German men, this AfD got more votes (27 percent) than any other party. No other party will partner with it. But the AfD will bring a new tone into the Bundestag. Exulting in its national share of more than 13 percent of the vote, one party leader — Alexander Gauland, pictured above — already warned Christian Democrats that “we will hunt them, we will get back our land and our people.”
The next few weeks will be quieter in German politics, as Ms. Merkel approaches the potential coalition partners. The Social Democrats, at a loss about their defeat, have decided to go into opposition rather than continue their coalition with Ms. Merkel. That leaves only the pro-business Free Democrats and the environmentalist Greens as partners that could jointly reach a majority of seats. But they hate each other.
What looks like a difficult situation may not be bad for Germany. Polling has shown that although Germans did not want to change their chancellor, they do want change. Germany has enacted no major domestic reform for 12 years. The country lags behind in the move to the “internet of things”. Its largest economic sector, the car industry, is mired in crisis after betting on the wrong technology, diesel, for the past generation. Abroad, the euro zone remains unbalanced; Britain has taken leave of its senses; America is abdicating its benign hegemony; and various rogue dictators are playing with fire. It’s good that this German campaign is over; Ms. Merkel has a lot of work to do.
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