The day after the Christian Democrats’ disappointing results in the elections to the state parliament in Hesse, Angela Merkel announced that she would not stand again as the party’s leader. However, she intends to remain chancellor until the end of her current term of office. Merkel’s decision means that Germany is entering a period of change that may also affect its foreign and European policy.
Merkel’s position atop the party has been weakening for a long time. Her authority has been undermined by the many months of negotiations over the creation of the federal government, disputes with sister-party CSU, and the ineffectiveness of the “grand coalition” in implementing announced reforms. All this has resulted in sinking the party’s ratings. A sign of the growing dissatisfaction of CDU members was the loss by Volker Kauder, a close associate of the chancellor, in the elections for the chairman of the CDU/CSU’s parliamentary faction. The latest test of Merkel’s leadership was the regional elections in Hesse, which — although the Christian Democrats won overall — the results showed a party in crisis.
It is the end of her 18 years of leadership of the party. The biggest challenge for CDU is to keep the centrist character of the party in a time of increasing social polarisation and outflow of voters to Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Greens, made all the more difficult because the Christian Democrats themselves have shown deep division between the party’s liberal and conservative wings. Another challenge is the need for a new leader who will be able to lead CDU/CSU to victory in the next elections and take on the role of chancellor. There is not much time: already in 2019, the party will face a test in elections to the European Parliament, as well as in local and regional elections.
The party’s secretary-general, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn, and the former chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction, Friedrich Merz, have come forward to compete for the position of CDU chair. The list of candidates, however, is not closed. The prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, may join them. Among Merkel’s potential successors, Kramp-Karrenbauer has been so far the most mentioned, but her victory is not a foregone conclusion. The result of the CDU election will determine whether the party will continue the centre-oriented course favoured by Merkel and as expected if Kramp-Karrenbauer or Laschet take over. An alternative is a turn towards the conservative wing, whose support Spahn and Merz can count on.
The greater threat to the government’s stability than Merkel’s decision is junior coalition partner SPD, which suffered another defeat, losing 10.9 percentage points in the elections in Hesse. Although there is an intense discussion in SPD about the sense of cooperation with CDU/CSU, there are weighty reasons for SPD to remain in the grand coalition. If it were to break it, a new election would most likely take place and could end in a severe defeat for the party, the loss of its status as the second-strongest party in Germany, and perhaps even its status as a major party (Volkspartei). That is why the party’s leadership seeks to maintain the coalition. By remaining in it, SPD gains time to implement the provisions of the coalition agreement and attempt to regain the support of centre-left voters.
Merkel announced she would not resign as head of the German government before the next parliamentary elections, so until 2021 or early elections. The chancellor does not want Germany’s position in foreign and European policy, especially during the remaining days of negotiations on Brexit and the EU budget (multiannual financial framework), proposals for deepening EU integration promoted by France, and elections to the European Parliament undermined by her decision. There is no doubt, however, that the new president of CDU will have a growing influence on government policy. While Germany’s relationship with Russia and the U.S., as well as to the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will not change fundamentally, a conservative candidate’s win may lead Germany to suppress reforms of the eurozone and tighten migration policy.