There can be no doubt that Angela Merkel is into the end game now. Only hours after regional election results in Hesse, central Germany, showed her party haemorrhaging a tenth of its support, the Iron Chancellor announced that she will not stand for re-election as chairman of the Christian Democratic Party this autumn, and will step down as Chancellor in 2021.
She still intends to stay on for at least two more years, mind you. But given that she has now acknowledged her own political mortality and set a time limit on her departure, yesterday’s announcement represents a sensational admission of weakness.
The truth is that this has been coming for years. Mrs Merkel has led her country since 2005 and her party since 2000. For a generation, she has been by far Europe’s leading political figure.
For the last three years, however, her political authority has been steadily ebbing. And although electoral fatigue and the rise of smaller parties have played their part, the plain fact is that her troubles really started the moment in 2015 that she threw open Germany’s borders to an estimated one million Middle Eastern migrants.
At the time, Mrs Merkel insisted that given its unhappy history, Germany had a special responsibility to look after those in trouble. And when people had the temerity to wonder whether the influx of so many newcomers might cause social problems of its own, she said simply: ‘Wir schaffen das’ – ‘We can do this.’
Mrs Merkel’s decision may have reflected well on her sense of social duty, but in hindsight it looks a moment of dreadful hubris and political irresponsibility. The most obvious political result has been the shocking surge of the far-Right AfD, which won 13 per cent of the vote in last year’s federal elections and picked up another 12 per cent in Hesse at the weekend.
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