Angela Merkel’s announcement that she will not stand for re-election as the leader of Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party is raising questions about the political future of the largest economy in Europe. Merkel wants to remain German chancellor until the end of her term in 2021, but the race to succeed her already has begun. Beyond the mere domestic ramifications, the consequences of the competition to succeed Merkel will have an impact across the European Union. In the immediate term, a weaker German government could result in the postponement of important EU reforms. In the longer term, Germany’s political polarization could make it harder for Berlin to accommodate its partners in Southern Europe, thereby threatening the entire continuity of the union.
Tough Choices for the CDU
One factor that will determine Germany’s course is the future orientation of the CDU. In recent years, Merkel has moved her conservative party to the center, supporting controversial decisions to introduce a minimum wage, shut down the country’s nuclear power stations and allow a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage. More notably, Merkel supported rescue programs for eurozone countries in distress (the third Greek bailout in 2015 was particularly controversial within her party) and opened Germany’s borders to around a million Syrian asylum seekers.
The measures, which were unpopular among the most conservative members of the CDU, contributed to the emergence of the nationalist and euroskeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD’s irruption onto Germany’s political scene meant that, for the first time in decades, the CDU now faced a rival to its right. Since the AfD’s emergence, the CDU has conducted an internal debate over whether to remain in the center and appeal to moderate voters, or move to the right and compete against the AfD; the dilemma will be front and center during discussions over Merkel’s successor. The chancellor’s policies also induced more fragmentation by aiding the electoral resurrection of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, which is critical of eurozone bailouts and competes for many of the same voters as the CDU.