An Analysis by Roland Nelles
With national elections just a year away, many have written Angela Merkel off. Yet even as her party continues to suffer in state elections, there are a host of reasons why the chancellor can hope for a fourth term — assuming she decides to run.
Angela Merkel is done. She has run out of luck, she is losing supporters in droves and she is driving former conservatives into the arms of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. More than that, her refugee policies are threatening to break apart the decades-long partnership between her Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU). In short, Germany’s incumbent chancellor doesn’t stand a chance next year when the country goes to the polls for the 2017 parliamentary elections.
Such has been the narrative in recent months and it is being repeated once again in the wake of Berlin city-state elections on Sunday, a vote that handed the CDU yet another apparently crushing defeat. Indeed, the party managed a paltry 17.6 percent of the vote, its worst post-reunification result ever in the German capital. Commentators, both domestic and foreign, have been rushing to chalk up the outcome as yet another referendum on Merkel’s performance in last year’s refugee crisis. Apparent proof of that interpretation is the 14.2 percent vote total received by the AfD. Coming on the heels of the AfD’s dramatic success in recent state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where it ended up with 20.8 percent, the trend looks clear.
It would, of course, be foolhardy to argue that all is well in Merkel’s political universe. But it would be equally hard to argue that Berlin elections are an accurate litmus test for her potential success next year. Indeed, all establishment parties did poorly on Sunday, with the Social Democrats “winning” the election with just 21.6 percent, almost seven percentage points lower than the party’s total in the last election in 2011. In fact, it was the lowest ever total for an election victor in a German state election. Support for the Greens also dropped, while both the far-left Left Party and the AfD booked significant gains. Much of that is a reflection of how dissatisfied Berliners have been with the SPD-CDU coalition that has held power in the city for the last five years.
A closer look at the results in Berlin, in fact, may indicate that Merkel’s chances aren’t too bad next year. Consider the following six reasons that she could very well end up being elected for a fourth term in the Chancellery next fall.
Why Merkel Could Win
- Her support base is surprisingly stable. Despite the brutal results in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Sunday’s ugly total in Berlin and Merkel’s ongoing slide in the public opinion polls, there isn’t really anybody who is threatening to overtake her. She is still eight to 10 points ahead of the SPD, which would seem to indicate that a sizable group of Merkel fans haven’t turned their backs on the beleaguered chancellor. There is (for now, at least) little indication that they will abandon her in the next 12 months.
- In direct comparison with her likely challenger, SPD head Sigmar Gabriel, surveys show that Merkel is far ahead. The Berlin election showed once again that the SPD still hasn’t figured out how to reverse years of decline, even if it limped to a victory. And it is difficult to imagine that Gabriel, after seven years as party head, will suddenly figure out how to win over a significantly greater share of voters.
- The SPD in Berlin has indicated it will strive for a governing coalition with the Greens and the Left Party. It is possible that in next year’s national campaign, the SPD will present the combination as a possible model for the national government as well. But whereas Berlin voters have welcomed Left Party participation in the government in the past, the rest of the country is far more conservative — and the prospect of a left-wing government with Left Party participation will make it much easier to mobilize conservative voters. Furthermore, the prospect of such a coalition may also lead potential AfD voters to think twice before abandoning the CDU.
- Even as the chasm between the Bavarian CSU and Merkel’s CDU is deep — a product of the CSU’s thorough rejection of Merkel’s refugee policies — it is becoming increasingly apparent that the differences between the two parties could harm them both in next year’s election. With the prospect of a left-wing coalition looming, the pressure is on Merkel and CSU-leader Horst Seehofer to finally set aside their differences. That would be a big boost to Merkel’s re-election chances.
- The refugee issue is already losing some of its immediacy. While it would be premature to argue that a lasting solution has been found, Merkel’s refugee deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan survived the attempted coup in Turkey and should it continue to hold, the numbers of refugees making it to Germany will continue to drop. Furthermore, states and municipalities are doing a better job of finding permanent housing for the refugees already in the country and German citizens are no longer constantly confronted with the immigration “crisis.” That will take the wind out of the AfD’s sails and take the pressure off of Merkel.
- Merkel has yet to say for sure if she will run for a fourth term, and the longer she delays, the less time her opponents within the CDU have to present an alternative. With just a year to go before the general election, a possible effort from within the party to push her out the door would be extremely risky. Furthermore, it isn’t clear who the alternative might be. While jettisoning Merkel in favor of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble or CSU head Seehofer could convince a few AfD voters to return to the CDU fold, it would almost certainly alienate an even greater number of Merkel supporters. The CDU knows that and will almost certainly come together to throw their support behind Merkel.
Merkel has indicated she will make her decision known by the end of the year. Should she decide to try for re-election, though, betting against her would be an extremely risky wager indeed.