Even a month ago, it seemed merely a matter of time before Angela Merkel announced she was running for a fourth term in next year's election. But after her party's humiliating defeat in a regional election in the north east, which was seen by many as a damning indictment of her management of the refugee crisis, things are suddenly a lot less clear.
It is important to put Sunday's result in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – where Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came third behind the centre-left Social Democrats and rightwing populists Alternative für Deutschland – into perspective. In the power dynamics of German federal politics, "Meck-Pomm" is a sparsely populated, relatively unimportant state, home to only 2 per cent of the overall population.
A deep-dive into the final result reveals the Social Democrats, who came out top, actually lost a higher share of support than Merkel's party, as did left wing Die Linke. The municipalities that tacked overwhelmingly to the right were all on the Polish border, while the western half of the state, where wages are higher due to the proximity of wealthy Hamburg, stuck to the centrist parties.
On top of all this, in a state where voters have historically had less of a problem casting their vote for far-right parties, almost 70 per cent of voters opted for parties that had backed the chancellor during the refugee crisis.
Süddeutsche Zeitung called for the result, which was described as a debacle for Merkel by many, to be considered in light of these factors. "Modern German democracy has survived several supposed nightmares," it wrote. "The AfD likes to spread fear. We don't have [to] automatically allow ourselves to be infected."
Sometimes, however, symbolism can trump psephological nuance. Coming exactly a year after the German government decided to keep open its borders to thousands of refugees stranded in Budapest, and taking place in the state of Merkel's own constituency, the election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has several troubling implications for the chancellor.
Outflanked by AfD
Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, had traditionally always ensured there was no room on the right of the political spectrum for any other party. That it has been outflanked by the AfD is seen by many as complacency with potentially historic consequences.
Figures on the right of the CDU, such as the popular outgoing MP Wolfgang Bosbach and finance ministry deputy Jens Spahn, maintain that while Merkel made the right call on refugees last September, she should have been quicker to clarify that Germany's open borders were a temporary emergency measure.
This analysis glosses over the situation on Germany's southern borders, where by gradually restricting the list of countries who can apply for asylum, Berlin has quietly shifted some of the burden of unwanted migration to Austria.
Yet Sunday’s election has shown that even in a state like Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, largely insulated from the refugee crisis and whose CDU-run interior ministry is known for efficient asylum processing, many voters are unwilling to forget about the temporary loss of political control personified by the chancellor.
That 20.8 per cent of the vote went for the AfD, Die Welt newspaper wrote on Monday, "makes it clear that the ghosts of the past have nowhere near been banished… The attempt to historicise the refugee crisis, as many speeches at the start of the election campaign in early July implied, fails to register with the electorate. On the refugee question, it is key to answer what lies ahead. But that alone is not enough. It will also be about assessing and engaging with the decisions of the past."
After more than a decade at the top of German politics, Merkel has successfully weathered crisis after crisis by gently applying the brakes when others would have stepped on the gas, containing conflicts by pragmatic compromise rather than dramatic intervention.
The metaphor frequently employed – as the chancellor did after Britain's vote to leave the European Union – was of limiting the "centrifugal forces" inherent in a crisis. That is precisely why the turbulent weeks of September last year, when the German state seemed to have temporarily lost control of the political situation in Europe, has done such lasting damage to her appeal.
If the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s election is anything to go by, more and more German politicians will try to make the refugee issue central to Merkel’s persona – with unknowable consequences for a putative fourth term bid.
The CSU has – unusually – said it would not confirm its backing of the CDU’s candidate (presumably Merkel) until next spring. According to a poll published last Friday, just 44 per cent of the German public believed Merkel would win a fourth term; though tellingly, none of her potential rivals, in her own party or the opposition, scored any better.
Even the broadly liberal news weekly Der Spiegel, often a staunch defender of the chancellor's course throughout the crisis, is suggesting that Merkel may want to "do a Schweini". The footballer Bastian Schweinsteiger recently took his bow from a glittering international career in a tearful testimonial match, during which the crowds chanted the Germany captain's name.
“If he had stayed longer, he would have done neither himself nor his country a favour.” Maybe, the magazine wrote in an editorial, the time had come for the chancellor to learn a lesson from her favourite footballer.