CDU Leadership

Waning support puts Merkel’s future in doubt

Germany’s Chancellor Merkel arrives at an EU-Turkey summit in Brussels
Why the long face? Source: Reuters

As the year draws to a close and with no government coalition in sight more than three months after September’s election, Angela Merkel is facing increasing pressure from her own ranks to promote a new generation of leaders.

It’s time to “get ready to pass the baton,” one member of the Christian Democratic Union told Handelsblatt. It’s widely understood that Ms. Merkel, who has held power since 2005, will not run for a fifth term as Germany’s chancellor in the next election in 2021. Polls show that actually, more and more voters would like her to bow out even earlier.

A YouGov survey published on Wednesday found that just 36 percent of respondents want Ms. Merkel to stay at the helm until 2021. Nearly half of those surveyed voters called for a change at the top before the end of the legislature.

The collapse last month of the CDU’s four-way coalition talks with its Bavarian sister party CSU, the pro-business Free Democrats and the Green Party has clearly dented voters’ confidence in Ms. Merkel’s leadership. The number of voters who would like Ms. Merkel to step down before the next election has increased by 11 percentage points in just two months (see chart).

“There are quite a few good people who could deliver that renewal.”

Wolfgang Kubicki, vice-chairman of the Free Democratic Party

And to compound the chancellor’s predicament, it’s not only regular voters calling for change — senior politicians have swelled their ranks. Wolfgang Kubicki, the vice-chairman of the FDP – the party that torpedoed the coalition talks last month and brought the country into uncharted constitutional territory — challenged the CDU/CSU bloc to bring in new leaders to improve its results in future elections. He said the CDU would have a better chance of forming a coalition with his party, the FDP, as was customary in past decades, rather than with the center-left Social Democrats.

Mr. Kubicki stopped short of calling on Ms. Merkel to step down but told daily Berliner Morgenpost that Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc “probably knows itself” how to win back voters after its historically poor showing in September’s election. “And there are quite a few good people who could deliver that renewal,” Mr. Kubicki said. He mentioned one potential successor: Jens Spahn.

28 Germans are growing tired of Merkel_2-01

Mr. Spahn is a member of the CDU presidium, a deputy finance minister and a long-time protégé of the influential former finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who bowed out after the election. At just 37, Mr. Spahn was pegged by a British newspaper last year as a possible chancellor candidate.

It seems as though Ms. Merkel has taken the hint. The chancellor included Mr. Spahn, a staunch conservative, in her negotiating team for the exploratory coalition talks with the SPD, which are due to start on January 7 and will continue for one week. She passed over long-serving cabinet members such as Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, 63. “This is the first clear signal to a younger generation,” one party member told Handelsblatt, adding that the government, the party and the CDU’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag have to promote new faces in order to “increase the pool of potential successors.”

That new generation is already emerging within the conservative bloc as a result of the election — at least in the German states. Saxony’s state premier, Stanislaw Tillich, 58, stepped down after the far-right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won more votes than his CDU in the eastern German state. His successor, Michael Kretschmer, is 16 years younger.

In Bavaria, one of Germany’s wealthiest states, the aftermath of the election brought down the influential state premier Horst Seehofer. He will cede to his finance minister, Markus Söder, at the state election next fall.

28. Parteitag der CDU
For Jens Spahn’s political career, the only way is up. Source: DPA / Sven Simon.

“All of Merkel’s critics have pinned their hopes on Spahn,” a CDU lawmaker told Handelsblatt, “but he won’t make it to the top on his own.” So there’s mounting pressure on the chancellor, in particular from her parliamentary group, to groom potential successors, preferably among parliamentary leaders, or state premiers and ministers in federal government. Many CDU lawmakers believe political heavyweights like Mr. de Maizière or Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, 59, should make room for younger hopefuls.

Although Ms. Merkel has governed Germany in a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats for eight of her 12 years in power, the upcoming talks with the SPD carry several risks. The center-left party is still reeling from its lowest-ever result at a federal election since World War II and will not be eager to compromise much from its leftist platform. By doing so, it would risk further hemorrhaging voters.

If the first round of exploratory talks is successful, a party congress will decide whether the SPD should enter into formal coalition talks with the center-right bloc. And in the end, the party base will be given a vote on the negotiated coalition agreement – which means SPD members will have a last-minute veto on Ms. Merkel’s coalition. If they reject it, Ms. Merkel would have no choice but to face new elections or lead a minority government – an option she has so far rejected.

Both scenarios do not necessarily mean Ms. Merkel will soon lose power. Current polls show she would win a snap election, while a minority government, though unheard-of in postwar Germany, is an option that has worked in many other Western countries. But both cases would see her considerably weakened.

Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Jean-Michel Hauteville adapted this article for Handelsblatt Global. To reach the author: delhaes@handelsblatt.com.

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