Rumours of Angela Merkel’s political demise gather steam
Germany’s biggest party faces a leadership crisis that dares not speak its name
German chancellor Angela Merkel has been a force of sense and stability for two decades in Berlin. Photograph: Omer Messinger/EPA
If you are in Hamburg on December 7th you will have plenty of entertainment options. A concert by former Velvet Underground rocker John Cale at the Elbphilharmonie, or the long-running Lion King, Disney’s stage musical take on Hamlet with regicide, a nervous meerkat and a warthog that breaks wind.
Another Advent option: Angela Merkel headlining at the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party convention. After another tough year in office, don’t expect the CDU leader and chancellor to follow Theresa May in Birmingham and dance on to the stage.
But, returning to the city of her birth, Dr Merkel knows she has to squash growing rumours of her political demise.
After her Bavarian allies’ election rout on Sunday, Dr Merkel’s own CDU faces a similar debacle in two weeks in Hesse, home to the country’s financial capital Frankfurt and traditionally a party stronghold.
State elections are usually decided on local issues – schools, transport, health – but everything in German politics is now linked to Angela Merkel: a projection screen for her country’s personal frustrations.
As one German columnist joked recently: “You can’t get a doctor’s appointment? Merkel must go. The DHL delivery man didn’t ring the bell? Merkel must go.”
Among a growing anti-Merkel cabal in the CDU are the sixtysomethings still bitter at being outsmarted for the party leadership by a Protestant East German divorcee. There is a second camp who have enjoyed power since 2005 but are unsure what will happen at the next election. And a third group of impatient 35-45-year-olds that simply want their shot.
Mutiny is brewing but, as yet, no one wants to be a mutineer. That was clear three weeks ago when CDU MPs sent a shot across Merkel’s bow by toppling a close ally of hers as parliamentary party leader. His successor promised continued support for Merkel but insisted things have to change. How, precisely? No answer.
Leader since 2000
The October state elections may prompt a reshuffle of Germany’s Christian Democrat deck. But it remains an open question whether this reshuffle will reach the top – and a woman who has been CDU leader since 2000, when the US president was Bill Clinton.
Asked about her future plans, Merkel insists she will serve out a full term and that, in her eyes, the chancellorship and party leadership belong in one pair of hands. But not everyone in her party agrees any more.
A series of no-name challengers – from a 61-year-old businessman to a 26-year-old law student – are contesting the party leadership in December.
They don’t stand a chance of winning, but they have sparked that rarest of things in Merkel’s CDU: debate. The most coherent challenger so far is Matthias Herdegen, a Bonn law professor. He says Merkel’s drive-by-sight political style has kept her party in power but has, he fears, undermined its political DNA and left supporters disillusioned, disoriented and angry.
He would like a CDU with a stronger liberal, pro-business profile – whether on immigration policy or European reform – but Herdegen is more interested in starting debate than entering politics.
Also calling for change in the CDU is senior MP Norbert Röttgen, once a crown prince until he was shafted by Dr Merkel.
But asked in last week’s Der Spiegel – twice – what he would change, Röttgen has nothing concrete to offer. He also avoided direct conflict with Merkel, calling instead for a new style of politics to “shape things better”, whatever that means.
Sense and stability
The most ambitious pretender to the CDU throne is Germany’s 38-year-old health minister, Jen Spahn.
In a party conference speech last week that sounded like a warm-up for December, Mr Spahn made a back-to-basics conservative pitch: more law-and-order and family-friendly policies; politics that embraces “modern patriotism” and is “pragmatic but not arbitrary”.
That earned him a standing ovation, but many influential CDU figures view him as little too young, one-dimensional and self-absorbed – at least for now. And for all his ambition, almost 20 years after Angela Merkel knifed Helmut Kohl with an op-ed pen, Spahn has yet to show the same killer instinct.
For all their frustration, CDU rank-and-file know Angela Merkel has been a force of sense and stability for two decades in Berlin.
But when she vowed to restore trust in Berlin politics on Monday, many muttered: what if Merkel – and her allergy to strategic planning – is the trust issue?
A year after Emmanuel Macron’s Sorbonne speech, we still have no substantial response from Berlin on the EU reform question.
On strategic challenges such as housing, climate change, diesel and Germany’s post-nuclear “energy transformation”, everything is up in the air.
While populism, protectionism and Brexit challenge Europe’s liberal values and prosperity, the biggest political party in the EU’s most influential member faces a leadership crisis that dares not speak its name.
And its December gathering in Hamburg risks fobbing us off with Lion King platitudes: Hakuna Matata – no worries.
Derek Scally is Berlin Corespondent