She had kept her party and country in suspense for months, promising only to make a decision at the “appropriate time.” In the end, the decision came quicker than expected. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday confirmed she will seek a fourth term as chancellor in federal elections next September, risking a political legacy under threat by the same populist forces at work elsewhere in the world.
“The appropriate time has arrived,” she said in a press conference Sunday evening, in characteristic understatement. Her decision to continue serving the country was ”anything but trivial, either for the country, for the party…or for me personally,” she said.
While her decision was widely anticipated outside of Germany, where the 62-year-old former East German physicist is considered the anchor of a deeply-divided Europe, Ms. Merkel’s announcement put to rest persistent speculation at home that she may suddenly step down amid rising criticism of her handling of the refugee crisis, and a string of unflattering state election setbacks.
In remarks at her party’s Berlin headquarters near the Tiergarten park, Ms. Merkel said her decision to run again had to do in part with a desire to fight for liberal values that she said are under “unprecedented” attack, especially from right-wing groups. Both Europe and the international community is faced with “challenges to our values and our interests, and quite simply for our way of life,” she said.
Her remarks came two days after a poignant last meeting with the visiting U.S. president, Barack Obama, whose own liberal legacy is under threat in the United States following the election victory of the New York real estate baron, Donald Trump. Responding to questions from the media, Ms. Merkel said her willingness to seek a fourth term — which, if completed, would qualify her with Helmut Kohl as Germany’s longest-serving chancellor – actually had more to do with keeping Germany competitive as Europe’s largest economy and helping it navigate a digital revolution she said was as profound as the one that followed the invention of Guttenberg’s printing press.
“I want to serve Germany,” Ms. Merkel said.
If her CDU party wins next September, Ms. Merkel, who has been in power since 2005 and has led her conservative party coalition since 2000, will have a chance to profoundly shape the modern face of Germany, as the nation seeks to assume a growing leadership role in Europe at a time of increasing fragmentation and rising right-wing populism in many of its neighbors.
“If I were here and I were German and I had a vote, I might support her.”
While her popularity has waned in the past year amid backlash from the refugee crisis, a sudden withdrawal by Ms. Merkel would have caused a sensation in Germany. A number of top party officials had already asserted that she was planning to run again, even if the chancellor had kept mum until Sunday.
President Obama indicated he would support her candidacy during their meeting in Berlin last week: “If I were here and I were German and I had a vote, I might support her. I don’t know whether that hurts or helps,” Mr. Obama said Thursday.
And yet her decision is not openly being welcomed by everyone in Germany or elsewhere in Europe, where her demands for continued fiscal austerity by euro member countries or her insistence that Europe shoulder the burden of more than 1 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees have fallen largely on deaf ears.
Ms. Merkel’s popularity has sunk during the past year, and she is more vulnerable politically entering this campaign than perhaps ever before. As she made her announcement Sunday night that she would seek another term, one German TV broadcaster, NTV, showed preliminary results of a snap poll that suggested a majority of respondents did not want her to run again.
While many internationally have praised her openness to welcoming refugees into the country, her decision has cost her CDU party in the polls and given rise to support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, a new political force that is now polling at between 15 and 20 percent of the German public. The country’s political parties to the left of center also sense an opportunity.
“The parliamentary election is open. Angela Merkel is no longer undefeatable,” said Thomas Oppermann, head of the center-left Social Democratic party faction in the Bundestag.
The chancellor, who has also come under attack from the more conservative wing of her own party, acknowledged Sunday that the 2017 election battle would be “very different from all the previous elections” she has faced. Europe’s largest economy, like many western democracies, has become deeply polarized, she warned – more even than during the worst years of the euro-zone debt crisis.
The Christian Social Union, Ms. Merkel’s Bavarian ally, had until Sunday been non-committal on whether it would support Ms. Merkel as chancellor. CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who has clashed repeatedly with the chancellor on how to deal with refugees, will sit down with Ms. Merkel early in 2017 to come up with a common platform to continue the conservative alliance, Ms. Merkel said.
Amid the speculation about Ms. Merkel’s future, there was general agreement by most political observers in Germany that the conservatives had no other option but to let Ms. Merkel run again. Beyond Ms. Merkel, the party has few other leaders with a national profile except for the finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who is 74 years old. The chancellor’s popularity has also been on the rise again of late as the flow of refugees into the country has ebbed in recent months.
Mr. Seehofer’s CSU, a thorn in Ms. Merkel’s side over her refugee policies, is also likely to fall in line in order to insure its limited influence in a ruling coalition again headed by Ms. Merkel. The CDU and CSU have consistently put up a joint candidate for federal elections for most of the post-war period, providing the necessary votes to win national elections that elevated Helmut Kohl. Yet the relationship between the two traditional allies is strained and was underlined by Ms. Merkel’s announcement that Mr. Seehofer would not be attending the CDU party’s convention in two weeks. Nor would Ms. Merkel attend the CSU’s own separate convention. Instead, the two will meet in early 2017.
More than anything, Ms. Merkel’s decision to let more than 1 million refugees fleeing civil war in Syria and Iraq into the country over the past year has dented her popularity. In 2013, the CDU narrowly missed winning an absolute majority in federal elections. Now, polls suggest it will be lucky to reach 30 percent.
“The CDU is pulling its last trump card, even though it doesn’t know if it will stick,” Christian Lindner, head of the pro-business Free Democratic Party of Germany, said in a statement.
And yet, the refugee crisis may be exactly why Ms. Merkel has chosen to stand for a fourth term. Party insiders say she doesn’t want to be remembered as the chancellor who failed because of the refugee crisis. A fourth term would mark her chance to overcome the challenge.
Even amid the political baggage she’s incurred from the refugee crisis, Ms. Merkel starts from a position of relative strength. While her CDU party’s support has slipped, support for her junior coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party, has plummeted even more and the party’s likely candidate and Merkel challenger, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, has low likability ratings among German voters.
Given the rise of the AfD, and its likely ability to send perhaps a fifth or more of representatives to the Bundestag in 2017, Ms. Merkel’s ability to run a relatively simple coalition could be threatened. Current polls suggest her conservative ruling coalition would not achieve enough support to command a majority and field a government, which would force the CDU to seek perhaps another party such as the Greens or even the Free Democrats to build a fragile coalition.
But these assumptions are more than 10 months before the actual vote in Germany and given the inaccuracy of political wisdom that preceded Britain’s June vote to leave the European Union or the U.S. election of Mr. Trump, Ms. Merkel’s own command of Europe’s largest economy, despite all appearances, may not be as solid as it seems.
Jan Hildebrand is Handelsblatt’s chief political correspondent. Christopher Cermak is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Kevin O’Brien is the editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com