Angela Merkel’s announcement Sunday that she will run for a fourth term as chancellor was hardly unexpected, given her role as the world’s foremost centrist, one of Europe’s last bulwarks against the hard right and a leader who doesn’t really have a credible rival in Germany.
Yet she will probably face the toughest election of her career; victory is far from assured.
The German parliamentary democracy doesn’t impose term limits on chancellors. Yet voter fatigue with a leader who will have run the country for 12 years by election day will be a factor.
“You know me,” Merkel told voters in 2013; and they liked what they knew. Now, Germans may know Merkel a little too well. And many suspect that, for all her skill at working out impossible compromises and pulling out of impossible situations, she doesn’t really have a plan for taking the country forward, whether tackling refugee integration or social security reform.
In addition to a speech declaring her candidacy, Merkel gave an interview to TV anchor Anne Will, explaining that her goal was to promote “cohesion” in society with her measured, centrist approach. She argued Germany would need her experience at a difficult time. That won’t be enough: Like all centrists everywhere, in the post-Brexit, post-Trump world Merkel has far more explaining to do than in the previous, happier era.
Michael Hanfeld wrote in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “This is nothing other than the reformulated mantra that Angela Merkel now avoids, “Wir schaffen das” (We can do it). But the questions that follow from this — what is it that we can do? How can we do it? — remain unanswered, as well as this one: Why is Angela Merkel convinced she is the right leader for the party and the country? And, most importantly: What do she and her party stand for? What goals do they pursue?
This looks like a strange set of questions to ask a leader who’s trying for 16 years in office, as much as her political mentor Helmut Kohl was given. And yet there’s a certain logic to asking them at the end of Merkel’s third term.
In 2013, Merkel’s main election promise was budget consolidation, and it was achieved early on. German states are on their way to balancing their budgets, too. Most of Merkel’s time has been dedicated to fighting international crises, such as the centrifugal tendencies in the euro zone and the EU, the Ukraine mess and the consequences of the Islamic State’s rise. The latter crisis hit too close to home as hundreds of thousands of refugees threatened to make Europe’s borders irrelevant.
Merkel’s sincere, empathetic reaction — to fight for Europe to allow more refugees in and to set an example — severely strained the German bureaucracy and police force. And, perhaps more importantly in the electoral context, Germans weren’t really asked about it before Merkel acted.
Donald Trump showed what happens when people feel they aren’t being consulted on sensitive matters like mass immigration. Though the German system has overcome the initial shock and Merkel has done her bit to contain the flood, she still needs to tell Germans what she intends to do with the newcomers, how they will be integrated or sent back. It’s no longer enough to speak of values — freedom, openness, tolerance, inclusion — as Merkel has often done.
The demand that Merkel specify where she’s taking Germany and how is probably a blueprint for all centrists campaigning for re-election throughout Europe: They need to talk to people as specifically as they can rather than refer them to abstract values that have faded from overuse. They also need to offer a clear path going forward. In Germany, that might mean taking on the overdue health and pension reform.
Changing demographics require action, but Merkel has been careful not to wade into that battle. Putting out fires is all well and good — and I’ve written many times that I believe Merkel has done an incredible job of it — but it’s hardly inspirational, and it’s getting old as a lure for voters.
The rest is politics, and it’s not all pretty for Merkel, either. Though the far right in Germany still appears too weak to present a serious threat, and its electoral gains will probably be neutralized by coalition politics, Merkel faces a challenge on the left. In liberal Berlin, where Merkel’s CDU party suffered a crushing defeat in September, Merkel’s federal coalition partners, the Social Democrats, have formed a governing coalition with far-left Die Linke party and the Greens. That’s something the leftists can try for in next year’s general election. Merkel has worked to minimize the danger, offering Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrats’ best campaigner, her support for the largely ceremonial German presidency.
If the CDU wins a plurality as it did in 2013, it will either have to partner again with the Social Democrats, which they won’t necessarily accept because their popularity has plummeted since the last election, or try to build a coalition with the Greens and the small, pro-business Free Democrats. That’s a problematic path because that coalition may not even get a majority.
And even if Merkel wins and finds steady coalition partners, her party, in which she has effectively destroyed all strong competitors for the leadership, will get only a brief respite from needing to look for a replacement. Its state leaders are lackluster, as recent regional election defeats have proved, and brilliant new politicians at the right of the political spectrum may well see more promise in a populist party like the anti-immigrant AfD than in Merkel’s staid old party that may end up essentially leaderless by the 2021 election.
Merkel’s dominance has delayed the hour of reckoning for German centrists, something that hasn’t happened in the U.S. and many European countries because they lacked such a figure. Merkel’s fourth run — which may well be successful given her superior skill — will in any case bare the political center’s problems. They can no longer be swept under the rug, in Germany or elsewhere.