“Après moi, le déluge”
“After me, the flood”
King Louis XV of France
Germany’s election on September 26th, 2021, marked the end of the Merkel era in Germany. Having befuddled would-be-challengers by announcing her retirement only to reverse course when pretenders to her throne imploded, this time Merkel meant what she said. Or so it seems. Merkel was not a candidate in the elections, which produced an inconclusive outcome, but will remain Chancellor in a caretaker capacity until someone else can cobble together a majority. Which could very well be a long time.
Nothing is more typical of Merkel’s tenure than the manner of her departure. It was a process of delays, bargaining, false starts, which left everyone involved – Germany, her party, the political system – depleted. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, won a mere 24.1% of the vote in the elections, the worst result in its history. This was down from the 32.9% Merkel won in 2017, which was previously the party’s worst result, after having won 41.5% in 2013, 33.8% in 2009, and 35.2% in 2005.
It is characteristic of Merkel that the election which first brought her to power, in 2005, and that which most recently left her master of the German political scene in 2017, saw her party lose seats and votes. The 35.2% that made her Chancellor in 2005 was less than the 38.8% that had ended the career of Edmund Stoiber, her predecessor. Merkel does not and never has played to win. She plays merely to lose less than everyone else, and be the last figure left standing. In 2005 and 2017, that meant ensuring not that her party did well, but that the other mainstream parties did worse. In a system where no one else won more than 21%, 33% made Merkel queen.
Merkel’s political strategy was one not of preservation, as friendly media voices have claimed in almost hagiographic stories covering her departure in the international press. It has been the opposite. Merkel has sought to fragment all other possible sources of power, an approach she has applied both to her own party, where she dealt with rivals with a policy of cooption that forced them to front unpopular policies, after which they were discarded or kicked upstairs to ceremonial roles. That was how Christian Wulff, the popular premier of Lower Saxony, was disposed of, elevated to the Presidency by Merkel in 2010 only to be forced out in 2012. She also used the popularity of her right-wing Health Minister Jens Spahn to ensure the succession of two of her proteges as CDU chairman over right-wing challengers by holding out the prospect that Spahn would become the first openly Gay chancellor, only to allow him to take the fall for COVID lockdowns and a disordered vaccine rollout.
Merkel’s handling of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian affiliate of the CDU, displayed the same trait and was, admittedly, a political masterstroke. The CSU has long opposed the “liberalism” of Merkel, especially regarding her support for open borders policies. Merkel was able to weaponize the backlash to the results of those very policies when they led to a defeat of the CSU in Bavaria. Merkel was able to use that defeat to force the resignation of Hans Seehofer, the hardline CSU Chief Minister, who she then appointed Interior Minister and forced to carry out the policies he opposed.
Additionally, Markus Soder, who accepted Merkel’s poisoned offer to take over the CSU, found himself boxed out of being the CDU’s candidate for Chancellor despite the overwhelming backing of voters in opinion polls and support from members of Parliament. Merkel even betrayed the man who she rigged the leadership for, Armin Laschet, by congratulating the SPD leader, Olaf Scholz, while Laschet was still trying to form a government.
The collapse of the CDU/CSU without Merkel is therefore less of a testament to Merkel’s unique appeal, and more of a reflection of her cynical decision to ensure that her own party would fail without her. Its collapse, both in vote share and internal cohesion, is a testament to her political skills.
Merkel has also done the same thing to other parties that she did to her own. German governments rule in coalition, and Merkel has sought to ruthlessly cannibalize her partners. By forming a coalition with the Social Democrats in 2005, she denied Germany’s only other major party the ability to act as an alternative option, making the question in 2009 one of merely which smaller parties would form a coalition with her. By driving up the votes of not just the “liberal” Free Democrats, but also the Greens, and the former Communist Left party, Merkel decreased the leverage of the party she partnered with, the FDP. Sidelined in government, the FDP went from 14% of the vote in 2009 to 4.8% in 2013, winning zero seats.
From 2013 to 2017 it was again the turn of the SPD, which achieved its worst ever result in 2017, with a mere 20% of the vote. Partially on the back of resentment against Merkel among right-wing voters, the Alternative for Germany Party won almost 13% of the vote, actually strengthening Merkel and allowing her to blackmail the Greens and SPD into supporting her almost unconditionally lest they allow the “Nazis” in. Her plan to do to the Greens what she had done to the FDP was averted by the unwillingness of that party to repeat the experiment, eventually resulting in a new coalition with the SPD. From that point on, Merkel’s long-term options were limited. Both the Greens and the FDP had experienced her treachery and would not trust her again, meaning that if they formed a majority with the SPD, even with the Left, they were now dedicated to ending her career. She retired because after a decade and a half of betrayal and intrigue she had run out of parties and people to betray.
If German politics is a policy desert of fragmented parties and unknown personalities, Merkel has also led a divided European Union. She befriended David Cameron, posing as an ally of Britain against French plans for closer union, only to deny him the concessions he needed to avert Brexit. Merkel offered infinite indulgence to Hungary, Poland, and Erodgan’s Turkey, protecting them from EU policies or rules she insisted London follow to the letter, only to eventually cut energy deals with Russia. She ended her term with the conclusion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, after four years of posing as the “leader of the free world” in the eyes of American liberals against Donald Trump.
Merkel is a brilliant political operator, standing above all her contemporaries. But as with Louis XV’s 57-year reign, it was all a dance which produced nothing, solved no problems, and left all of them to deteriorate. The deluge of trouble that would follow would be a matter for her successors to deal with, successors who she did everything possible to ensure would not be up to the task of meeting it.
People will miss the Merkel era, just as Americans spent two decades pining for the Clinton years after the 1990s. It will be up to history to make people realize that Merkel, like Clinton, actually did nothing.