Merkel’s making a mess of handing over the reins of power

German politics faces a potentially murky future if it doesn’t sort out the succession of its long-sitting chancellor, writes Leonid Bershidsky.

After the relatively weak performance of the ruling Christian Democratic Union in the European Parliament election on Sunday, the party’s leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is in trouble. There is a fear in the party that Chancellor Angela Merkel has messed up her succession, and it has even been reported that Merkel herself doubts whether AKK, as she is known, is up to the job.

This has important implications for what happens in Germany between now and the fall of 2021, when the next national election is scheduled to take place. The Merkel succession struggle that played out at the end of last year and ended with AKK’s appointment could restart, and Merkel could end up not serving out her term as chancellor.

The European election result on its own isn’t really a disaster, even though, at 22.6%, it’s extremely low for an umbrella party. It’s not a national vote, and the distinction is clear to German voters. In national election polls, the CDU’s support has been hovering around the 30% mark since 2017, and it’s not much lower after the European election.

This, however, was the first major campaign AKK fought without Merkel at her side — the chancellor had pointedly kept out of it, having officially retired as a politician, though not as the government leader, last December. And, with AKK running the campaign, the worst fears of the CDU establishment materialized.

Partly this is a sign of the times. Umbrella parties are suffering throughout Europe as voters choose political forces with more specific answers to their concerns. Merkel’s popularity and experience allowed the CDU to balance between the moderate left and the far right, but even she had been having trouble in the last few years.

The CDU lost millions of its more liberal supporters to the Greens, especially young people (the Greens came first in the 18-29 age group and were even in the CDU in the 30-44 one). It has also continued to bleed support to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

The AfD only got about 11% of the vote in the European elections, less than in the last national election, but it was the strongest party in the eastern state of Saxony, beating the ruling CDU there, and it also made gains in local elections held at the same time as the European vote. Depending on the results of a run-off next month, Goerlitz, Germany’s easternmost city, may get the country’s first AfD mayor next month. And this was despite AKK’s many overtures to her party’s conservative flank and her spirited defence of traditional family values.

AKK has clearly made some rookie errors. Less than a week before the election, a popular YouTuber known as Rezo, known primarily for his music videos, published a 55 minute-long invective against the CDU, viewed so far by almost 13 million people. Dozens of other YouTube influencers followed this up with their own calls not to vote for the CDU and its coalition partner, the Social Democrats.

It may or may not have been a factor in the massive young voter defection to the Greens, but AKK’s reaction revealed a lack of patience with the way the media landscape has been changing. She said:

What would happen in this country if, say, 70 newspapers decided to issue a united call two days before the election: Please let’s not vote for the CDU or the SPD?

“That would have been a clear attempt to manipulate public opinion before the election.”

She added that she’d liked to discuss whether the rules that exist in the analogue world also apply to the digital one. This backfired badly, with political rivals and bloggers accusing AKK of advocating censorship (she has denied this) and, perhaps even worse, of being out of touch with the next generation and its ways.

If the CDU keeps losing supporters both to the Greens on the left and the AfD on the right, it will mean AKK has failed to achieve her stated goal of shoring up the party’s role as an umbrella political force of the center. And without Merkel, still the country’s most popular politician, campaigning alongside her, AKK’s ability to win elections at the national level has been thrown into doubt.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer blows a kiss at the party convention of the Christian Democratic Party CDU in Hamburg, Germany, at the end of last year, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, didn’t run again for party chairmanship after more than 18 years at the helm of the party. Picture: AP Photo/Michael Sohn
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer blows a kiss at the party convention of the Christian Democratic Party CDU in Hamburg, Germany, at the end of last year, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, didn’t run again for party chairmanship after more than 18 years at the helm of the party. Picture: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

Merkel resigned the party leadership and helped AKK to it against her better judgment, after saying for years she believed the same person should be party leader and chancellor and after remarking to an interviewer that she didn’t believe in managed successions.

Party elders such as parliament speaker Wolfgang Schaeuble want Merkel to serve out her term. But if the CDU brass and membership decide that sticking with AKK is too much of a risk for 2021, the matter of leadership may well resurface. Merz has been waiting in the wings; if he can’t keep young voters from defecting to the Greens, he can make a more persuasive case to AfD supporters than AKK.

This electoral season, AKK missed her chance to shine. Given its dangerously low support levels and the pressure from the left and from the right, the CDU may not show much forbearance — and then Germany’s political future will look even murkier than it did last fall.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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