“I have always wished and intended to hold office in both party and state with dignity, and also to leave one day with dignity.” That’s how Angela Merkel, in her idiosyncratically convoluted and understated way, explained her decision yesterday not to run again for boss of the Christian Democratic Union, which she has led for 18 years, or for chancellor in 2021, which she has been for 13 years. And indeed, as I was watching her, I once again felt that “she is almost certainly the most dignified world leader today,” as I tweeted spontaneously.
“Not to rain on the hagiography, but we shouldn’t confuse desperation with dignity,” replied my colleague Matthew Karnitschnig, the Chief Europe Correspondent of Politico. “She faced a simple choice: jump or get pushed.”
It is true that Merkel, after months of setbacks and criticism, was increasingly at risk of getting pushed. In that sense, her announcement did amount to a preemptive jump. But to me that still does not detract from the fundamental dignity of the moment, or of her career. Socrates and Seneca also jumped, rather than be pushed, and therein lay their dignity.
Contrast Merkel’s reaction to the regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse with that of Horst Seehofer. He is the leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, as well as Merkel’s interior minister. Seehofer, with his populist and irresponsible antics throughout the summer, was the primary cause of the bad blood in the governing coalition, and thus bears most of the blame for the bad results by the CSU and CDU, respectively, in Bavaria and Hesse. But Seehofer stubbornly refuses to resign. Now there is a man who should, and will, get pushed. Seehofer is long past dignity. That is why he will be no more than a footnote in history books, whereas Merkel will be a chapter.
Dignity, moreover, does not preclude cleverness, or even tactical genius. Merkel certainly has oodles of both. Here are just some of the ways in which her announcement was not only dignified but also smart: First, at least until the CDU convention in Hamburg this December, there is now no longer any point for anybody in her party to scheme against her. Instead, both her allies and enemies will be busy undermining one another, until the successor is clear. For the time being, she can concentrate on being chancellor.
Second, her move is clever because it robs the Social Democrats, at least for now, of an excuse to quit their coalition with Merkel’s bloc. That was always the most immediate threat to Merkel as chancellor, because she had ruled out leading a minority government. The Social Democrats must now take responsibility for their own decline without blaming it on Merkel. And they must prove that they are at least open to working with a new CDU leader to make the coalition work.
Third, Merkel was smart because she figured out why her own contention — that leadership of party and government should never be separated — was no longer relevant. Her predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, made a big mistake in 2004 in giving up leadership of the SPD while running again for chancellor (and losing). But Merkel won’t be running again for anything. Instead, the next CDU boss and presumptive candidate will be seeking her support in the coming campaign.
By being shrewd and dignified at the same time, Merkel thus has a chance to serve out her last term. And to make history.
Of course, the other factor determining whether she can last until 2021 is who the next leader of the CDU will be. “I am a person who can work very, very well with quite a lot of people, and I am known for that,” Merkel said at her press conference yesterday. And there is no doubt that she would indeed work very well with at least two potential successors: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (nick-named AKK and sometimes “mini-Merkel”) and Armin Laschet, the governor of North-Rhine Westphalia, a boring but sensible conciliator type.
Whether she could work with Jens Spahn, an opportunistic and combative conservative who is currently health minister, is at least debatable. But the biggest question surrounds an old name making a sudden comeback: Friedrich Merz.
Around the turn of the century, Merz was seen as one of the CDU’s most promising talents. He was a certifiably pro-business conservative, who wanted to simplify the tax code so radically that a normal return would fit on one single postcard, or, as he put it, on a “beer coaster”. For a while, he led the joint parliamentary group of CDU and CSU. But then Merkel, who was already party chair, demoted him to take that additional job herself.
Merz has apparently never lived down the hurt. In several steps, he exited politics and has since 2009 been successful in business, as chairman for the German arm of BlackRock and more. If Merz were now to return as party boss, with Merkel still chancellor, their tale, and Germany’s, would truly become Shakespearean.
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