Angela Merkel’s time as German chancellor may be running out

She needs to cobble together a coalition government

Angela Merkel. (Clemens Bilan/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s Griff Witte.

In her 13th year as German chancellor, Angela Merkel’s once-invincible reign is seemingly in free-fall.

Every political career ends, and Merkel’s finale may be coming faster than just about anyone had predicted. Her rapidly diminishing political stock threatens to leave a void not only in Germany but also across the West, just as she had emerged as the most robust internationalist counterpoint to Trump-style nativism.

The beginning of the possible end

Merkel’s troubles started with a bitterly disappointing election result in September. They grew when her first attempt at forging a new government collapsed in November. And they have been compounded in recent days, as polls have shown German voters tiring of her leadership.

Merkel now has what many regard as a last shot to cobble together a coalition and ward off an embarrassing electoral do-over that could see her lose her grip on power.

“Time is running out,” said Stefan Kornelius, a Merkel biographer. “She is under immense pressure to somehow make this happen.”

But Merkel’s saving grace — for now, at least — may be that there is no obvious successor.

There’s certainly no one who could immediately fill the outsize role that Merkel has played in global affairs. Though not always willingly, the low-key East German with a PhD in quantum chemistry has become de facto leader of Europe and keeper of the flame for those who regard President Trump’s brand of politics as a threat to core Western values.

Her work

Over her dozen years in office:

  • 63-year-old Merkel has guided Germany to robust economic health, with strong GDP growth and low unemployment.
  • Her decision to welcome more than 1 million asylum seekers in 2015–2016 galvanized the far right but was supported by the political mainstream.
  • She has navigated a series of European crises, from the war in Ukraine to Greek debt.

Putting together a government

A survey published by the Bild newspaper in late December showed that nearly half the country did not want her to complete a fourth term.

A poll released days later by Die Welt had even worse news for Merkel: Nearly half the country would like her to step down right away.

A large part is because there’s no stable coalition government in place.

“She is tasked with putting together a government, and she hasn’t done it,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund and a former presidential adviser.

“There’s a failure on her side that the constitution attributes to her and that the people seem to attribute to her.”

Before the September elections, political observers had widely assumed that Merkel would once again coast to victory, with a clear shot at matching the record 16-year tenure of her onetime mentor, Helmut Kohl.

Instead, her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) suffered its worst result since 1949, including the loss of a million of its voters to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

While the CDU still came out on top of a fractured field, Merkel was forced to pursue an unwieldy deal among her own conservative bloc, the pro-business Free Democrats and the environmentalist Greens.

When the Free Democrats unexpectedly backed out, Merkel had to go to plan B: a revival of the grand coalition between the center-right and the center-left that has governed Europe’s largest economy for the past four years.

Substantive talks are only now getting underway, with a deal not expected before April, if one comes at all.

It’s already the longest that postwar Germany has ever gone after an election without a government.

Without a stable coalition government, Germany could be forced to hold new elections far earlier than planned, perhaps as soon as this year. And it’s unclear whether Merkel would lead her party in another vote.

“That’s a secret that’s hidden in her heart,” said Jürgen Hardt, a veteran CDU member of Parliament and the party’s spokesman on foreign affairs.

Angela Merkel’s time as German chancellor may be running out was originally published in The Lily on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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