Merkel’s Resignation as Party Head After Poor Election Results Stokes Speculation Over Political Shifts Ahead

By James Carstensen | October 30, 2018 | 11:20pm EDT
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a weekly government cabinet meeting on October 17, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to step down as head of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) is prompting intense speculation over its future direction and a potential shift in German politics.

Merkel in her announcement said she bore the “responsibility for success and failure” as both chancellor and CDU chairwoman, following poor election results in the state of Hesse on Sunday.

While her party took the largest share of the vote, its 27 percentage points marked a drop from 38.3 percent and was the CDU’s worst result in Hesse since 1966. Its coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), also fared badly, dropping to 19.8 percent from 30.7.

Mirroring the trend of the recent Bavarian elections, the Greens and populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) parties picked up support, with 19.8 percent (previously 11.1) and 13.1 percent (previously 4.1) of the vote respectively.

Merkel, who has been chancellor for 13 years, plans to retain that position until the end of her term in 2021, and she said she will not run for any other political office in future.

The recent state elections have reflected shifts from mainstream parties to those further to the left and right.

The CDU’s “sister” party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), also took a blow, losing its majority in the Bavarian regional parliament for only the second time since 1957.

Merkel’s leadership has struggled, with divisions over migration after 1.4 million migrants were admitted since 2015. She has also been confronted by a string of internal CDU issues since last year’s national election.

The chancellor faced a crisis over the summer when her interior minister, Horst Seehofer of the CSU, threatened to quit unless stricter immigration policies were implemented.

Controversy flared in September when her intelligence chief was removed over the alleged misuse of confidential information.

The future policy direction of the CDU will largely depend on Merkel’s successor.

Of those expressing interest, CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a close confidant of Merkel and loyal to her policies, and Friedrich Merz, a previous CDU leader seen as less supportive of her policies, are the most popular candidates, according to a poll published by Spiegel Online Tuesday.

During a CDU meeting on Monday, an influential CDU state leader, Bernd Althusmann, called Merkel’s exit from the CDU leadership “a chance for the party to reposition itself,” but one that would depend on whether it can avoid “endless discussions” about candidates.

CDU co-chairman Bernd Riexinger was less optimistic, telling local media Monday he was anticipating a tussle over whether the party will continue its current course under Kramp-Karrenbauer, or take a more conservative tilt under Merz.

The far right AfD, which leads the opposition to Merkel’s liberal migration policy, welcomed the move, with party leader Jörg Meuthen saying Merkel was finally beginning “to understand the signs of the times.”

Albert Goldson, executive director at the Cerulean Global Capital Council, a think-tank specializing in geopolitical risk assessment and public policy, linked Merkel’s move to her migration policy.

“Merkel’s difficult and pivotal decision to allow the entry of millions of migrants was the catalyst for the rise of populist parties, particularly the AfD,” he said.

Joshua Stowell, editor of Global Security Review, said rising populism was definitely a factor, as was Merkel’s centrist positioning.

“Merkel has steadily moved German politics to the center. She had tried to accommodate a wide spectrum of political views and therefore spread herself too thin,” he said. “This move is a signal that centrism is no longer the order of the day.”

“It has been a difficult past few years for Merkel, reflected this year in local elections bringing stinging defeats to her party,” said Dr. Matthew Crosston, senior doctoral faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University.

One should not automatically jump to the conclusion that Merkel’s decision was solely based on disappointment or desperation, he cautioned.

“This still smacks of strategic positioning, long-term, for CDU leadership over national German politics,” Crosston said, adding that making the announcement now gives her party three years to prepare new leadership ahead of the next federal election.

“The CDU is still the dominant party, but Merkel might be reading the writing on the wall and sincerely feels it is time to let new blood and leadership rise to the top of the party,” he said.

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