In Germany, the battle for Merkel's legacy is on
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
by Philipp Requat & Anna Strumpel (Op Ed, Xinhua, 19.10.2018)
Not too long ago, the most common criticism of chancellor Angela Merkel made by her detractors was the seemingly unassailable grip which the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader had acquired on German politics.
Party representatives of diverse ideological stripes complained about Merkel’s frequent usurpation
of their own policy position, while those who dared to challenge her within the CDU itself lived in
fear of her reputation for belatedly but consistently exacting revenge on her internal rivals.
Merkel started out as an underdog, defying several stereotypes of German federal leaders as a
female chemistry PhD from the former Communist East, but has become a fixture at the helm of the
country’s government. An entire generation has grown up in Germany without knowing any other
chancellor since Merkel first took office nearly 13 years ago.
More recently, many Germans are suddenly beginning to ponder life after Merkel. Seen as an
almost invincible electoral force once, she is now attacked by politicians and journalists for failing to
keep her own ministers in line and hanging on in office as a “lame duck” whose best days are behind
The transformation in the 64-year-old’s image, from cunning political novice to a tired veteran
stateswoman, is epitomized in media reactions to repeated clashes between Merkel and interior
minister and Christian Social Union (CSU) leader Horst Seehofer. Threats by Seehofer in the summer
to resign, and hence potentially provoke the unravelling of the ruling “grand coalition” were read as
an unprecedented example of cabinet disobedience and a sign of the chancellor’s eroding authority.
For many pundits, this impression was only reinforced by the government’s handling of the so-
called Maassen affair last month. Hans-Georg Maassen, provoked outrage as president of the Federal
Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) when he attempted to downplay televised scenes of
far-right violence on the streets of Chemnitz. Nevertheless, Seehofer, who has himself publicly said
that he would have participated in the marches in the East German city as a regular citizen, refused to
give in to pressure from Merkel and German Social Democrat (SPD) leader Andrea Nahles to sack the
An unusual “compromise” was ultimately reached in emergency “grand coalition” discussions to
remove Maassen from the BfV while promoting him to a more senior and better paid position as
secretary of state in Seehofer’s interior ministry. Although the government backtracked again within a
few days in the face of an angry popular backlash against its decision, the incident was depicted in
media as underscoring just how little leverage Merkel enjoys in her fourth governing cabinet.
Against this backdrop of a bitter power struggle between the chancellor and interior minister, the
surprising election of Ralph Brinkhaus as the leader of the CDU parliamentary faction over Merkel’s
preferred candidate Volker Kauder in early October is arguably the final nail in the coffin.
Speaking to Xinhua, Juergen Falter, Senior Research Professor at the University of Mainz, argued
that Merkel has lost some of her “political instinct” with regards to her own party and the broader
population since the 2015 refugee crisis.
“Merkel’s loss of authority began with Seehofer’s attacks against her asylum policies and continued
with the Maassen affair and now the voting out of Volker Kauder as CDU/CSU parliamentary faction
leader”, Falter said. He added that the chancellor had consequently experienced “several successive
defeats” and was no longer as successful in managing her party compared to previous years.
While Falter warned that it would be difficult to reverse the loss of authority already suffered by
Merkel, he predicted that the chancellor would not yield to pressure to surrender her post anytime
“Firstly, there would have to be a willing successor and at the moment there is no one who is no one
who is willing to lead an open challenge. Secondly, the other parties would have to approve of the
successor in question”, Falter said.
According to Falter, Merkel will consequently stay on in the current legislative period for “as long
as she wants.” She was unlikely to resign during a time of crisis and would instead wait for the CDU’s
ratings to improve, as well as ensuring that someone was poised to take over the reins. “Merkel is the
only one in whom I have confidence that she will voluntarily step down at a moment which she views
as opportune”, the academic said.
In its latest publication, the German magazine “SPIEGEL” placed an image of Merkel’s
characteristic suit jacket hanging empty from a coat rack with the caption “What will come, when
Merkel goes?” on its front cover. What is noteworthy about the cover is that it reflects a shift in tone
from debates on whether and when the CDU leader would step down to discussions of the concrete
implications of what is treated as the foregone conclusion of her retirement from Germany’s political
At least so far, Horst Seehofer has not been rewarded for going head to head with Merkel. The CSU
slumped to its worst ever electoral result in its Bavarian homestead as voters fled in droves to the
Greens and AfD instead of following the traditional catch-all party in its lurch to the right. Given a
parallel collapse in support for the SPD, some commentators have interpreted the outcome as a blow
directed at the “grand coalition” as a whole. The CDU did not participate in the race itself, however,
and gains enjoyed by the Greens on a pragmatic platform in Bavaria suggests that there is still some
mileage in Merkel’s centrist brand of politics.
David McAllister (CDU), former governor of Lower Saxony and the acting Chair of the European
Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, told Xinhua that the federal government should focus on
delivering good policy rather than speculating prematurely about the chancellor’s demise.
“As long as Angela Merkel is serving as chancellor there is no reason to ponder her successor. I am
against having these debates at this moment.” McAllister urged the “grand coalition” partners to
instead direct their energy to ending the internal “quarreling” witnessed during past weeks.”
McAllister further expressed confidence that Merkel’s chancellorship would be remembered as a
“very successful one”, when it finally drew to a close.
“She has made the German economy strong, we have a balanced federal budget and the lowest
youth unemployment in Europe. We have rarely had such a long favorable economic period in
Germany”, the senior CDU politician said. In the 13 th year of her chancellorship, it seems, the
rhetorical battle for Merkel’s legacy has begun.
Measured by most conventional standards, it hard to disagree with McAllister that Merkel’s
chancellorship has been a success. Aside from the feat of emerging victorious in four successive
federal elections, the domestic economy has grown continuously and rapidly for past seven years with
below average unemployment and inequality compared to other industrialized nations. Contrary to
fears that the 2015 influx of asylum seekers would lead to an unravelling of Germany’s socio-
economic fabric, crime is down and public budget surpluses are at record levels.
Yet at the same time, cabinet infighting and rise of far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), most
recently in Bavaria, showcase that this benign narrative of Merkel’s reign is not uncontested. The
AfD, and even interior minister Horst Seehofer, clearly have a radically different view of Germany’s
The latest “Populism Barometer” by the Bertelsmann Foundation warns that voter fatigue with
centrist views is growing the Eurozone’s largest economy. In 2018, 30.4 percent of voters in Germany
were allocated to the populist spectrum of electoral politics by researchers at the Guetersloh-based
think-tank. During the same period, the share of voters who had “clearly non-populist” views declined
by 4.1 percentage points to 32.8 percent.The Populism Barometer findings underscore that debate over Merkel’s future is not just about a personnel and legislative reshuffle in the highest echelon of power in Berlin. A broader shift in Germany’s political culture is underway, the final outcome of which remains unclear.
As a consequence, the legacy of the chancellor is likely to be determined as much by the ideology of
her successor to power as by the favorable labor market and GDP data of her governments. If Merkel
cannot pass her final test of building up a CDU leader and chancellor who defends her own moderate
course, the damage to her historical reputation could be lasting.