A more polarising era

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told leaders of her Christian Democrats (CDU) that she will not seek re-election as party chairwoman at a conference in early December. Merkel has been CDU chairwoman since 2000 and giving up the role will start a race within the party to succeed her as Chancellor.

The Christian Democrats were first in an election held on October 28 in the western state of Hesse but support for the party fell by more than 11 points. The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), who are Merkel’s junior coalition partner, won about a fifth of the vote, their worst result in the western state since 1946.

Merkel, who has been Germany’s Chancellor for 13 years, has called time on her own tenure as CDU leader. While she nevertheless wants to serve her full term as Chancellor until 2021, her country and the rest of Europe will inevitably start looking ahead to what could be a more polarising era.

The announcement of Merkel’s decision to give up the CDU chair came in the aftermath of another disappointing election result at the weekend. The Christian Democrats’ sister party, the CSU, two weeks ago suffered its worst result in Bavaria since 1950. Some traditional supporters of the two parties were angered by Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome one million mainly Muslim asylum seekers. The need to win back such voters may tempt the next chair of the CDU to push the party to the right.

But that will be hard to square with the demands of Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) who are also being punished by voters. The SPD is under pressure to show supporters it is achieving tangible results by staying in government.

If the CDU tacks to the right, and the SPD pulls the other way, the current coalition will fall apart sooner rather than later. A minority government or an alliance with the liberal Free Democrats, who walked away from coalition talks last year, could then be on the cards.

There will also be consequences for the rest of Europe if the CDU shifts to the right. A lame-duck Merkel – or her successor – may be less tolerant of countries, such as Italy, who flout the European Union’s budget rules. All the more so if the CDU is trying to win back its traditional supporters, who typically favour fiscal discipline.

Merkel may be remembered for her ability to forge consensus and act for the greater good. Domestic political pressure means her successor is unlikely to have that luxury.

Alan McQuaid (30/10/18)