It’s happening: the beginning of the end of the Angela Merkel era. On Monday, Ms. Merkel, the three-term German chancellor, announced she was stepping down from the chairmanship of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party, and that she would not run for re-election in 2021.
The news was not a total shock: Germans have been alternately praying for, and fearing, such an announcement since the migration crisis of 2015. The question now is whether Ms. Merkel will last her full term; most likely, the grand coalition between her party and the center-left Social Democrats will collapse before the next election.
For Germany, this may prove to be a watershed moment. Ms. Merkel’s decision could well mark a new beginning for Germany’s conservatives, who face an identity crisis after years of her pragmatic, triangulating leadership. In the best case, it could consolidate Germany’s faltering party system, in which the two establishment parties, locked in the center, are under siege from smaller parties in the wings.
From an international perspective, however, Monday’s announcement means that Germany’s period of intense introspection, at the expense of an assertive regional and global leadership role, will continue. It could also mean that Ms. Merkel will continue to govern, but has to deal with a party leader who does not entirely support her as she faces an increasingly quarrelsome coalition.
For many in Germany, it is still hard to imagine a Merkel-less government. The first woman to occupy the German Chancellery, Ms. Merkel has been head of her party for 18 years, and has ruled this country for 13.
Her statement encapsulated what makes her such a great leader — and why she is responsible for the fractured state her party is in. To explain her decision, Ms. Merkel returned to a theme that has characterized her political career: a deeply felt sense of responsibility, and humility. She spoke of herself as a civil servant, someone who should always seek to unite the community she is serving. To that end, she said that she would serve her party and the country best by declining to run again.
What may sound like an attempt at dressing a defeat in dignity is authentic. It has always been Ms. Merkel’s greatest strength to be selfless, and humble, and dedicated to a greater cause.
But in the years since the migration crisis, those same qualities became twisted, and a problem to her party and coalition partner. Ms. Merkel’s posture as a stalwart civil servant has led her at times to defy overwhelming public opinion. She increasingly conveyed the notion that she did not want to be obstructed in serving by criticism or by discussion of alternatives to her decisions.
It’s something that can happen to anyone who has sacrificed for a cause: in return, he expects to be blessed with epiphany, and thinks of himself as infallible. It’s the humble arrogance of the monk who has renounced the world and dedicated his life to God in the anticipation of exclusive access to some higher truth.
It is no surprise that Ms. Merkel’s uncompromising dedication to what’s right has become a threat to Germany’s conservatives. The state elections in Hesse and Bavaria in the past two weeks were painful reminders of the disintegration of Germany’s postwar party system. As in the national election in September 2017, voters slammed the two establishment parties. In surveys, Ms. Merkel’s party is now at around 27 percent, down from 41.5 in the election of 2013.
The center-right’s problem goes beyond low poll numbers. Ms. Merkel has modernized the party and given up on most of its hard-held beliefs. While she opposed legalizing same-sex marriage, she has pushed her party to embrace green energy, end mandatory military service and accommodate refugees. As a result, her leadership has left her party without principles. It has no answers for fundamental questions like “What is Germany’s identity in an age of globalization?” and “What is the place of Islam within German culture?”
That lack of identity, and Ms. Merkel’s unwavering (some would say self-righteous) leadership, have allowed the far right to make her a main target. “Merkel muss weg!” — “Merkel has to go!” — has become the battle cry of the movement.
For years, Ms. Merkel’s pragmatism has caused subcutaneous tensions within the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Those tensions are now open cracks. A few weeks ago, a rebellion by conservative members of her coalition forced out a longtime Merkel confidant as the head of the parliamentary caucus in favor of an unknown back bencher.
Almost immediately after Ms. Merkel’s statement Monday, three candidates announced they would run for party chairman in December, each representing a different center-right faction: Jens Spahn, the young minister of health who has positioned himself as a true conservative; Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party’s secretary general and a pragmatic ally of Ms. Merkel; and Friedrich Merz, a conventional pro-market liberal (at this point, largely considered a long shot). The campaign among those three could be healthy for the party if it leads to a clarification of its basic values, and therefore for the country, too.
For that to happen, though, the Christian Democrats will need a period of introspection, with one leader on the way out and another — with perhaps a very different idea about where Germany is headed — still unchosen. That’s bad news for Europe, which desperately needs a strong pro-unification voice, something Ms. Merkel provided for so long. Nor can the other party in the governing coalition, the Social Democrats, step into the breach — likewise decimated in the recent elections, they are suffering through their own period of self-reflection.
The two parties are set to reconsider their alliance next year. It’s not hard to imagine the coming months: two parties striving for clearer profiles, unsettled by infighting, staggering toward a man-made deadline while clutching each other’s throat. They will be led by a chancellor who may be rendered a lame duck, depending on whether a friend (Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer) or foe (Mr. Spahn) succeeds her as chairman of her party.
And still, while the future may be rocky in the near term, there’s hope in the political air. Angela Merkel’s stepping aside may prove the beginning of a revival of political discourse in Germany, and a much-needed resolution about where the country is headed. She may again, though maybe for the last time, have truly served her country.
Anna Sauerbrey, a contributing opinion writer since 2015, has been an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel since 2011.