Germany's future: Merkel without Merkelism

Amid all of the uncertainty of Germany's laborious search for a new government, the one certainty is that, in the end...

Posted: Jan 11, 2018 3:10 PM
Updated: Jan 11, 2018 3:10 PM

Amid all of the uncertainty of Germany's laborious search for a new government, the one certainty is that, in the end, Angela Merkel will be Chancellor again.

Yet the cornerstones of Merkel's style and principles -- described in Germany jokingly as Merkelism -- have been so eroded that the Chancellor's final term will be a feeble incarnation of the first three.

The Chancellor is greatly weakened. Fierce attacks on her person, politics and lordly bearing come not just from the opposition -- now bolstered by far-right populists -- but also from within her government and even her own party.

This may unnerve some Germans, who have grown used to the simplicities of life under Merkelism, and cause to distress the Chancellor herself, who is unused to it. But, sanguinely, it will rejuvenate politics in the republic after a long hiatus.

Merkelism is less of an ideology than the way Angela Merkel rules. While she is indisputably in charge -- even authoritarian in her command of her Cabinet and party -- she governs not with a big-picture political vision but rather as the final arbiter of differences and disputes between her ministers and the wings within her Christian Democrats.

Merkel is never hasty, waiting and testing public sentiment as long as possible before making a decision -- and then when she does, it is final, irrefutable and beyond question. "There is no alternative," Merkel says, which until now much of the German public and her conservative party have taken her word, and dutifully fallen in line.

Another tenet of Merkelism is that there is no alternative to Merkel herself. This applies to the country -- indeed her own party, the Christian Democratic Union, which has no rival of its size -- but also within the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Over the years, Merkel has ruthlessly eliminated one (usually male) contender after another, leaving her without a challenger -- or successor -- in the party. This is why, no matter her diminished popularity and clumsiness in forming a government, Merkel will be the next Chancellor as surely as she is the current one.

But today is not like the aftermath of the 2009 or 2013 votes, when both Merkel and Merkelism were as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. The Chancellor and her party crawled away from the autumn 2017 vote badly battered: chalking up the CDU's worst showing since its first election in 1949, the dawn of the republic.

The CDU/CSU's 32.8% tally was down almost 10% from 2013 (41.5%) -- and much worse than the numbers alone, for the first time in postwar Germany, a xenophobic nationalist party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, roared into the Bundestag with 12.6% of the vote.

Much of the AfD's support had shifted over from the Christian Democrats' right wing, which has been profoundly unhappy with the conservative Chancellor's more liberal turns.

Despite her diminished standing, Merkel (who else?) led the first post-vote coalition talks in October and November between four parties -- one of the few possible coalition options in light of the CDU/CSU's miserable performance. But the old magic of Merkelism had obviously worn off: The talks collapsed after almost five weeks, with many observers blaming Merkel's hands-off approach.

Since then, as the Social Democrats deliberated over opening negotiations on forming another grand coalition, the Chancellor's popularity numbers have dropped further, and ever more Christian Democrats are fleeing the party.

If there were leadership alternatives to Merkel in either Christian Democratic party, their names would at least surface and cases be made for and against them. But not only has Merkel drained the pool of serious competitors, she has refused to groom a successor. All of the possible conservative politicos who might harbor larger ambitions are years from being ready to take over: Either they lack experience or support in the party or sufficient popularity.

Take the defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who has held three ministerial posts, but is even more liberal than Merkel, and thus wholly unsuitable for party conservatives. The conservatives' hopeful is Jens Spahn, a deputy minister dealing with finance. Yet at 37, he is young and untested in the big leagues. Moreover, a gay person with a loud mouth isn't what Germany's Christian Conservatives had hoped for after languishing for so many years under Merkel.

In the next administration, as well as in the CDU party structures, Merkel is going to have to give figures such as Spahn meaningful posts that come with real political power. By 2019 or 2020 at the latest, she will probably have to hand over party leadership to a junior colleague, which would at least make her preference for a successor clear. But the party as a whole will vote on it, and she can expect the knives to come out and the warfare to be fierce.

Moreover, many right-wingers in her CDU and the arch-conservative CSU have signaled the definitive end of their grudging acceptance of Merkel's lurch to the center, which they blame for enabling the far-right AfD to enter the Bundestag.

The CSU, which faces elections in Bavaria in the fall, remains adamantly opposed to Merkel's immigration policies, insisting that they must be much harder on family reunion, and strictly limit refugee entries and all kinds of immigration.

Flying in the face of a conservative uprising, the Social Democrats, if they rejoin a grand coalition, intend to stake out robust left-wing positions and drive them forward with a vigor that distance their party from Merkel and conservatives.

The Social Democratic Party has underscored that it will not suffer the further deterioration of its profile by Merkel further encroaching on its turf -- another aspect of Merkelism. The grand coalitions of the past will look warm and fuzzy compared with the next one -- if it gets that far.

And complicating everything, the AfD -- which heaps abuse on Merkel, the European Union and the euro, along with Germany's perceived political correctness -- will be the biggest opposition party in parliament if the Social Democratic Party is in government. This gives it a prized perch from which to hammer Merkel from the far right -- a new, uncomfortable phenomenon in the Bundestag.

All of this will make Merkel's fourth term knottier and more tenuous than any before it, which will also sap her power to set German priorities in EU reform and in global affairs in general -- at a time when leadership and moderate conservatism are more critical than ever.

But another element of Merkelism that observers shouldn't forget: Merkel is at her most savvy when embattled and underestimated. Until now, when she's taken off the gloves, she's won.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 118322

Reported Deaths: 3591
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion21502767
Lake10688323
Elkhart6707111
St. Joseph6619113
Allen6330205
Hamilton4938109
Vanderburgh378131
Hendricks2766124
Monroe265536
Tippecanoe256613
Johnson2352124
Clark225957
Porter219947
Delaware200162
Cass19559
Vigo186827
Madison170375
LaPorte149141
Floyd139664
Warrick138242
Howard132663
Kosciusko125917
Bartholomew118457
Marshall101524
Dubois99919
Boone99146
Grant95134
Hancock94643
Noble93132
Henry81226
Jackson7739
Wayne77014
Morgan73438
Daviess68028
Shelby68029
Dearborn67528
LaGrange64011
Clinton62314
Harrison59224
Putnam58411
Gibson5355
Knox5289
Lawrence51629
Montgomery51121
DeKalb48811
White48714
Decatur45939
Miami4394
Greene42735
Fayette42313
Jasper4012
Scott39011
Steuben3907
Posey3460
Sullivan33812
Jennings31612
Franklin31325
Clay3085
Ripley3078
Orange28824
Whitley2826
Carroll27813
Adams2763
Wabash2728
Starke2717
Washington2701
Wells2674
Spencer2633
Jefferson2503
Huntington2473
Fulton2442
Tipton22822
Randolph2238
Perry22113
Jay1920
Newton17411
Owen1711
Martin1680
Pike1641
Rush1574
Vermillion1310
Fountain1292
Blackford1213
Pulaski1141
Crawford1100
Parke1072
Brown1043
Benton870
Ohio797
Union790
Switzerland690
Warren411
Unassigned0226

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 151802

Reported Deaths: 4746
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin27119607
Cuyahoga17554656
Hamilton13237315
Montgomery7938164
Lucas7343364
Butler6085111
Summit5366252
Warren311549
Marion311147
Mahoning3095281
Stark2913175
Pickaway267944
Lorain233386
Delaware230621
Fairfield213253
Licking194963
Columbiana194080
Wood192172
Trumbull1916132
Clark183940
Clermont174423
Lake164851
Greene149034
Medina147539
Miami146351
Allen146269
Portage116866
Mercer113218
Erie95947
Tuscarawas94120
Wayne94068
Richland92219
Ross89624
Madison84312
Darke80643
Geauga72649
Athens7242
Belmont72427
Hancock72010
Lawrence67122
Ashtabula66048
Shelby66010
Putnam61923
Auglaize6119
Sandusky58020
Huron5557
Union5512
Scioto5167
Seneca48814
Ottawa47130
Preble44515
Muskingum4383
Holmes3959
Jefferson3384
Henry33414
Defiance33012
Champaign3133
Logan3133
Clinton30213
Perry3009
Brown2922
Knox28815
Washington26223
Jackson2616
Morrow2612
Fulton2591
Hardin25713
Crawford2476
Ashland2464
Coshocton23411
Fayette2336
Highland2303
Williams2143
Wyandot21312
Pike2020
Gallia19613
Meigs17610
Guernsey1738
Hocking1679
Carroll1527
Adams1364
Van Wert1243
Monroe11018
Paulding1100
Harrison643
Morgan500
Vinton473
Noble340
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
46° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 44°
Angola
46° wxIcon
Hi: 62° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 44°
Huntington
Clear
45° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 45°
Decatur
Clear
45° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 45°
Van Wert
Clear
45° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 42°
Fall-like Tuesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events