German democracy enters a new chapter as Merkel departs

Europe’s most populous – and powerful – country goes to the polls on Sunday

German chancellor Angela Merkel feeds Australian lorikeets at Marlow Bird Park in Marlow, Germany. On Sunday her fourth and final term ends. Photograph: Georg Wendt/dpa via AP

German chancellor Angela Merkel feeds Australian lorikeets at Marlow Bird Park in Marlow, Germany. On Sunday her fourth and final term ends. Photograph: Georg Wendt/dpa via AP

 

Can a man, raised in West Germany, be chancellor? That is the intriguing question on Sunday as Angela Merkel’s fourth and final term ends and more than 60 million Germans are called to the polls in Europe’s most populous – and powerful – country.

Merkel was once seen as a provisional curiosity in the German political landscape: a childless, protestant pastor’s daughter from the communist East with a physics doctorate. She didn’t tick any of the boxes of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) predecessors: Catholic, lawyer, male.

It was by cracking open the old West German mould, by governing with the empathy and wisdom gained on the other side of the gender and Cold War divides, that Merkel became Europe’s indispensable leader.

The country she leaves behind is equally indispensable: more prosperous, diverse and at peace with itself and its neighbours than at any time in its history. Three decades after it toppled the Berlin Wall and ended post-war division, unification remains a long and arduous process. But Germany and its old-new capital Berlin has established itself in the modern EU landscape as a first among equals – a crucial place to visit and to understand.

It wasn’t always this way. When Germans went to the polls in 2005, their country was an economic basket case with 0.9 per cent growth and 10 per cent unemployment.

The country was so preoccupied with painful – though ultimately successful – domestic reforms that impatient political neighbours turned away. Leading news organisations, fearing Germany’s decline was terminal, closed their Berlin offices.

There was no indication that anything would change after the September 2005 poll. German voters elect parties, not chancellors, and 16 years ago they left the CDU and its Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) allies just one percentage point ahead of the then ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Visibly shell-shocked by this political stalemate, Merkel was bullied and baited on live television by outgoing SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder and ended election night dangling from a thread.

In one way the departure of Merkel removes the last sticking plaster holding together the old political model: two big tent parties and two smaller coalition king-makers.

She turned it all around to secure four terms in office and, with the SPD, three grand coalitions that offered Germany – and Europe – unique, centrist stability at a time of unprecedented crisis.

Final polling ahead of Sunday’s election indicates another photo finish is likely, though this time the SPD is marginally ahead in polls.

Unlike 2005, no one wants another grand coalition while both CDU/CSU and SPD are shrunken political entities, down 10 points each.

In one way the departure of Merkel removes the last sticking plaster holding together the old political model: two big tent parties and two smaller coalition king-makers. Lifelong political allegiance, with regular meetings and a party membership book, is a thing of the past.

After the sedate civility of Bonn, electioneering in the Berlin Republic is more like a visit to the city’s notorious KitKat Club: regular shifting partners and the promise of something better around every corner. Germany’s next coalition government is likely to, for the first time, have three parties in bed together rather than two.

This shift, building for some time, only made itself visible in the early summer when German voters began to grasp emotionally that the Merkel era was ending, triggering an opinion poll rollercoaster.

In just one year the CDU/CSU has slid a staggering 15 percentage points; the Greens are down 10 points on their first place poll high of 26 per cent in April and will be happy to finish third. Finally, the SPD has bounced up 11 points in four months, from election also-ran in May to poll leader with 25 per cent.

These are all signs of a political system in flux, with voters trying to re-orient themselves in a political card game with the Merkel joker removed. But flux is not instability.

Elsewhere in Europe, electorates are embracing populists in various guises: bumbling clown, narcissist nativist and old-school Islamophobe. Germany knows – to its cost – where that leads and the election campaign stands out, like most political leaders running for high office tomorrow, for its maturity and intelligence.

The post-Merkel CDU has struggled to connect with voters this time around, yet boosting its right-wing conservative wing may help contain the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Stuck at about 10 per cent in polls, it struggled to exploit pandemic frustration or renewed immigration fears.

The SPD’s return to its core political pitch – social justice with a dose of economic realism – has squeezed the far-left Linke to just 6 per cent. Even as German democracy enters a new chapter, three quarters of the electorate is set to vote for the political mainstream.

Merkel’s political ambition was to choose her moment to leave, and to leave the country in a better state than she inherited it. Though her successor inherits a long reform to-do list, she has succeeded on both counts.

Derek Scally is Berlin correspondent of The Irish Times

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.