In 1999, after a series of state electoral defeats for the coalition of Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, Mr. Schröder memorably said, “We got the message.”
Words like “disaster” and “lesson” had been used up – people didn’t want to hear them anymore. They wanted results instead. The former chancellor had to react to the loss of trust in leaders and he did just that.
Chancellor Angela Merkel may be slowly realizing that it is now time for a similar public confession. For now, the connection between the chancellor, who chairs the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and her voters, is broken, whether the issue is domestic security, refugee policies or Turkey.
Merkel doesn't want to change course. She fears losing her credibility in that case. But if she sticks to her policies, the basis for her power will be eroded.
When it comes to following Mr. Schröder’s example about trust, Ms. Merkel has taken one of her typically tiny steps.
On Monday, she broke the golden rule usually adhered to during top politicians’ foreign policy-related trips abroad: Don’t comment on developments back home. Yesterday, at the G20 summit in China’s city of Hangzhou, she commented on the electoral results in her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the former East Germany, cautious sentences rather than a meaty speech.
The trouble is that the chancellor wants to regain trust but not to change any of her policies.
Ms. Merkel’s strength was always her realism. But now, she appears to be trying out the art of political illusion.
She seems to have no access to the themes that concern middle-class voters. Even in terms of foreign policy, Ms. Merkel is no longer unassailable.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan highlights this on an almost weekly basis. What might in the past have been seen as a mere skirmish – for example her attitude concerning a near-unanimous German parliamentary resolution that described massacres of Armenians in Turkey 100 years ago as “genocide” — becomes an explosive political controversy that damages her political image. Nor is it clear how it would be possible to distance oneself from the resolution, but only when it concerned Turkey.
This beating around the bush extends to domestic security. Few people find it acceptable for women in Germany to appear in public fully veiled. In nine out of 10 cases, courts have stated that veiled women in schools or courtrooms have to conform to the customs of the country, not the other way around. Women’s rights activists are up in arms about this sign of the power of Islam in Germany.
Ms. Merkel’s interior minister, on the other hand, hides behind legal reservations, fearing he would lose against the Constitutional Court if he tried to impose a ban. He is examining the legal options and Ms. Merkel allows this dithering to continue.
In Hangzhou at the summit of leaders of the world’s major economies, the chancellor said she stood behind her decisions about refugee policy and now just needs to fine tune it. But the public don’t see refugee policy in isolation, rather they are connected with terror and fears of social decline, no matter how often Ms. Merkel’s followers claim the opposite.
The Green Party are the only ones defending Ms. Merkel’s welcome policy toward refugees and they have just been tossed out of the parliament in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s weekend state elections.
What will happen next?
Her government coalition partners, led by Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democratic Party and Horst Seehofer of the center-right Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), both believe their oppositional roles have been justified. Both men believe Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy has failed. Harmony between the coalition partners is in short supply.
In February, when the next federal president is selected, Ms. Merkel will push for the candidate supported by the CDU and its sister party, the CSU – but she lacks the necessary majority and it would be a miracle if the SPD’s Mr. Gabriel were to support her. He senses the chancellor’s weaknesses.
So divisions within the coalition government will grow – the indicators are increasing, as is evidence in the calls from the CDU-CSU alliance for the resignation of Heiko Maas, the SPD minister of justice.
And Ms. Merkel herself? CDU strategists are pondering how their party leader can get out of this dilemma. She doesn’t want to change her course, she fears that would cost her credibility. But if she sticks to her policies, this could cost her voters, the basis for her power.
Her strategy of asymmetrical demobilization is coming to an end as the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party mobilizes voters again, ones who don’t stay home on election day but cast their votes. The AfD is offering them an alternative.
There were times when the Social Democrats wondered whether it even made sense to name a candidate for the chancellorship in the 2017 legislative elections. Now the CDU itself is debating whether Ms. Merkel is still the right candidate.
At the party congress in December, she will have to tackle the problem head on. The delegates will want to know who is going to be the party’s chancellor candidate.
But before then, there are several regional party conferences and a CSU party congress. Last time, Mr. Seehofer showed Ms. Merkel up on stage.
Ms. Merkel faces a long autumn of discontent.
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