DEU130906aa002BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Monday that she will step down as head of her conservative party and also as chancellor when her current term ends in 2021, ending her prominent role in German politics – and in steering Europe – after 18 years.

The decision followed another abysmal regional election result this month for her conservative Christian Democrats, who are in need of an image reboot after her decision to allow more than 1 million refugees into the country since 2015.

"I am trying to do my part to ensure that the federal government finally gets the strength to focus on doing good for the country," Ms. Merkel said Monday. "I am convinced that this action offers many more opportunities than risks."

Voters by and large agreed, saying the chancellor had worn out her welcome.

"Ms. Merkel does whatever is on the top of her head, and most of that seems to be her own opinion," said Erika, 77, a retiree in Berlin who refused to disclose her last name out of privacy concerns. "It's time for her to hand the leadership to someone else."

But the chancellor's surprise decision could also be part of a longer game, analysts said. Her fragile government is more likely to hold it together if her rivals know she’s leaving, preventing early elections that would only benefit fringe parties on both the right and left of the political spectrum and destabilize Europe's most influential nation.

"She's aware that the slaughter of her party losing so much support has never happened before," said Olaf Boehnke, a senior political analyst in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a thinktank in Brussels. "Nobody wants to risk new elections right now."

Ms. Merkel's decision comes on the heels of massive political setbacks in two pivotal regional elections this month.

On Oct. 28, her Christian Democrats secured only 28 percent of the vote in the state of Hesse, home to the nation's financial capital of Frankfurt, marking an 11-percent loss from the last elections in 2013. The environmentalist Green Party and the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany won significant boosts, receiving almost 20 and more than 13 percent of the vote, respectively.

In Bavaria on Oct. 14, voters delivered Ms. Merkel's conservative sister party, the Christian Social Union, only 37 percent of the vote – its weakest result in more than 50 years. The Greens became the state's second-strongest political force with 17.5 percent of the vote, and the Alternative for Germany secured more than 10 percent.

In both elections, Ms. Merkel's embattled coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats, lost more than 10 percent of their support, cementing a trend of voters fleeing parties currently in Berlin's shaky government.

Ms. Merkel's conservative bloc is only polling at 24 percent nationally. The Social Democrats enjoy the support of only 15 percent, compared to 20 and 16 percent for the Greens and the Alternative for Germany, according to an Oct. 27 poll from German research institute Forsa.
"This is a clear signal that things can't continue as they have been," Ms. Merkel said at the press conference on Monday.

Still, many voters recognized the tenacity of her political resolve as the nation's first female chancellor, as well as her contributions in uniting Europe during a time of increased instability.

"People will miss Angela Merkel once she's gone," said Stefan Baumann, 51, in Hesse who said he voted SPD. "She is the last among German politicians to have a strong conviction for Europe – the rest have no understanding nor respect of and for our historical responsibilities."

Ms. Merkel successfully navigated Germany and Europe through the Eurozone financial crisis at the start of the decade and prevented a humanitarian disaster in the European Union in 2015 when she unilaterally allowed almost 1 million refugees to seek asylum in Germany as other bloc members closed their borders.

But the political maneuvering for which Ms. Merkel is so lauded didn't come without pushback: Her refugee policies gave meteoric rise to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Alternative for Germany, which siphoned more than 1 million votes from Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats in 2017. They are now the nation's third-largest party in Parliament.

"It will be a loss of great leadership in the country," said Oliver Schulte, a university student in Berlin.

With the chancellor's days now numbered, Germany, Europe and the world are wondering who will fill the power vacuum in Berlin in her absence.

Big-name conservatives and longtime rivals of the chancellor within the Christian Democrats' ranks have already announced that they'll be vying for Ms. Merkel's spot at the party's convention in early December.

Among them is current Minister of Health Jens Spahn, a Merkel critic whose staunch conservativism and homosexuality make him a prime candidate to reach a new generation of German conservatives, and current secretary general of the Christian Democrats, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Catholic mother or three whose rhetoric and personality mirrors that of the current chancellor.

Either choice would move the Christian Democrats to the right, allowing them to gain ground lost to the Alternative for Germany, said Boehnke, adding that Kramp-Karrenbauer would be Merkel's favorite.

"She'd be the piece of the puzzle that Merkel was lacking, and at the same time wouldn't try to oust Merkel prematurely," he added.
Handpicking a candidate who will ensure a smooth transition is crucial to a chancellor wary of throwing her coalition government into a nosedive that could lead to new elections – and cataclysmic results for her already ailing party.

"This sacrifice is clever – Merkel is saying that the Christian Democrats need to get their house in order," said Boehnke. "Because for both the Christian and Social Democrats, it could only get worse with new elections."

Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision comes on the heels of massive political setbacks in two pivotal regional elections this month.
Credit: ARA Network Inc. (2013)

Story/photo published date: 10/29/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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