Early Merkel nostalgia overshadows succession race
Relinquishing CDU leadership seems to have freed up the buttoned-down German leader
German chancellor Angela Merkel: now displaying rare public flashes of her private wit. Photograph: Kay Nietfeld/AFP/Getty
For once, the Germans don’t have a word for it. As Angela Merkel enters her last week as leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), many here seem to be missing her already – though she may be some way from departing the political stage.
In Berlin, the mood is a curious hybrid of Sehnsucht (longing) and Fernweh (a yen for the far-away): relief in some quarters that the 18-year Merkel era is ending mixed with doubts over whether the next pair of hands on the tiller will be as steady.
Freed of the party leadership, Merkel hopes to serve out her term as chancellor to 2021 – though that will depend largely on who is elected CDU leader at its party conference next Friday in Hamburg.
Even politically diminished, Merkel arrives at the Buenos Aires G20 meeting on Friday facing a barrage of special requests. Brexit blocked? Ukraine-Russia on the brink? Trump in a tantrum? With the EU still lacking a phone number Henry Kissinger can remember, the default remains: dial A for Angela.
Asked by the New York Post about the Russian-Ukrainian standoff, US president Donald Trump suggested: “Angela, let’s get involved Angela!” (sic) – apparently confusing his word order and, according to the Post, “exaggerating the pronunciation of her first name”.
President Petro Poroshenko rowed in with a similar idea, describing her in the Bild tabloid on Thursday as a “great friend of Ukraine” and recalling the ceasefire that emerged from her 16-hour diplomatic marathon in Minsk in February 2015. “She already saved our nation once before,” he said. “Now we are hoping that she . . . will once again support us this much.”
For her part, Merkel urged Kiev on Thursday to “remain smart” and reminded all sides “we can only solve things sensibly and in talks . . . there is no military solution”.
But what if, Merkel loyalists in Germany worry, her departure as party leader is seen by some alpha males as an invitation to step up military posturing over Crimea?
At the same time, the Merkel fan club is intrigued at how handing back the CDU leadership has liberated the buttoned-down German leader.
Not noted for rhetorical brilliance, Merkel impressed everyone in the Bundestag last week by allowing herself a rare public flash of her private wit. First, she half-listened as AfD co-leader Alice Weidel turned an opposition budget speech into an angry defence against irregular donation claims.
Following her at the podium, Merkel opened her own address with a dry, ad-libbed put-down: “The nice thing about free debates is that everyone can talk about what’s important to them.”
The hoots of laughter echoed those in the European Parliament in Strasbourg days earlier. There, Merkel warned of the temptations of nationalism and egotism in politics – and defended her decision to keep open German borders in the refugee crisis.
As vocal European populists accused her of ruining Germany and Europe with refugees, the chancellor asked: “Do you really think that that is something that could leave us hamstrung?”
Again her intervention saw the cheers soon drown out the jeers.
This new, liberated Merkel could yet prove a wild card in Hamburg, and what polls suggest is still an open succession race.
Three candidates have toured the country in a political roadshow so well-mannered that none has scored a decisive advantage on their rivals.
Early on, it looked as if CDU Merkel fatigue would boost Friedrich Merz, a former rival. He promised more decisive, conservative-liberal politics and a tougher migration line – a play for conservatives who opposed the 2015-2016 policy and have defected to the AfD.
But many political analysts suggest any gains from such a hard migration line risk the loss of centrist CDU supporters.
And for many of these supporters, soft Merkel nostalgia goes hand-in-hand with a longing for calm in an increasingly uncertain world. And that could in turn boost Merkel’s preferred successor – Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – as a safe, continuity candidate.
For Kati Marton, a journalist working on a Merkel biography, the looming departure has sobered up Merkel critics – in particular those in the AfD.
“She was their all-purpose demon, who will now fill that void?” she asked. “The AfD don’t have a programme or solutions for the many problems that beset Germany which she has calmly – and perhaps too quietly – been dealing with. They had only Merkel hatred.”
A popular comedy show suggested last week these “Merkel-must-go” protesters should be careful of what they wish for.
“The expression ‘Merkel must go!’ just trips off the tongue,” the television host noted. “But ‘Kramp-Karr . . . Kramp-bauer, whatever, must go . . .’ – you can’t even get that on a poster.”