End of Merkel’s era? Not so fast

48 percent of Germans said they did not want Chancellor Angela Merkel to continue in office after the next election. It seems it is a clear reaction on Merkel’s position regarding refugee crisis. Do you think there is anything Merkel can do about his popularity or she probably does not want to candidate in the next election anyway? Read few comments.

Jörg ForbrigSenior Program Officer for Central and Eastern Europe, German Marshall Fund

Over the last months of the heightening refugee crisis, a sort of competition has emerged among political commentators and pollsters to predict the demise of Angela Merkel. Such predictions are premature and unfounded.

Opinion polls have indeed indicated a growing anxiety among Germans. There are concerns if the country will be able to handle this massive influx of refugees, there is fear of the political and social consequences of this influx. However, a majority of Germans continues to support Merkel’s position that refugees fleeing war zones deserve help and that Germany should do its utmost to provide such help.

The ratings of Angela Merkel have slipped  but not as dramatically as many claim. She remains among the top three most popular politicians in Germany, her party remains the unchallenged forerunner with nearly 40 percent of public support. The slide in public opinion also seems to have bottomed out; no trend towards further weakening of Merkel’s position is visible.

The current moderate drop in Merkel’s ratings is unlikely to have major political consequences. The federal elections are two years out, which provides enough time for Merkel’s standing to recover provided that her government get the refugee situation under control. New laws to regulate the refugee situation have been passed, budget support for refugees has substantial increased, a deal with Turkey has been found, and refugee numbers to Europe are dropping – all of this should ease the situation.

Next year, Germany will see a wave of regional and local elections. These will see an increase in the votes cast for the xenophobic and Euro-sceptic right, especially in East Germany. Overall, however, the regional elections will not change the political constellation in the country. The upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, where the outcomes of regional elections are reflected, has long been dominated by the Social Democrats who, in turn, are in coalition with Merkel’s CDU.

There is no credible and strong challenger to Angela Merkel in her own party, and there is no other party seriously challenging the lead of her Christian-Democratic Union. She will be the top candidate of her party, which will win the next federal election by a wide margin. The real question is only, whether and which coalition she will be able to form. Possible options – a continuation of the current grand coalition with the SPD or a tandem with the Greens – are mostly a function of the performance of those coalition partners, not of her own.

In short, Merkel does not have to concern herself overly with her current ratings and position, which are solid. Instead, she focuses on the task at hand with the refugee crisis. And in doing so, her principled and consistent approach is quite impressive and reassuring to many in Germany.

Sebastian BukowWissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Forschungsinformation und Qualitätsicherung, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf

That’s true, right now there is quite a disturbance in the CDU/CSU, and there is a polarized societal support towards the question of Merkel’s refugee’s policy. It is most interesting, that this cleavage (which is not a “real” cleavage in terms of political science) does not only divide parties but runs across parties as well. Even in the CSU a relevant number of members (and party convention delegates) dislike Seehofer’s hardlined position, but of course esp. the CSU attacks Merkel and here refugee policy. Nevertheless, Merkel already reemphasized here policy. The main problem might be that this policy field is a quite normative and symbolic one.

But, to answer your question, there are a few thoughts and arguments that the recent popularity crisis of Angela Merkel might not necessarily be a early decision for the next federal election.

There are first of all intra party arguments:

Merkel did change the CDU policy in a few cases before (e.g. nuclear power, family policy), and this was not always easy too. But, of course, this time the friction is more serious (esp. CDU vs. CSU). This would strengthen the argument that she might not (be able to) run for chancellorship again.

Though, there are no real alternatives – who could replace her? E.g. neither Schäuble or de Maizière nor von der Leyen are without problems (e.g. the euro conflict, the NSA scandal, the upcoming military action) and all of them have intra-party opponents as well. All in all, Merkel is still supported by a relevant number of party members and voters – as the conflict does not only divides the society as the parties as well. So this might strengthen the argument, that this is not an easy period for Merkel’s policy, but that she might stand it.

Second, the aspect of time:

The next federal election will take place in roundabout two years. Up to then, the refugee topic might / will  be calmed and new topics might rise. In addition to this, this will be plenty of time for here to “re-socialize” with her party and her voters, and she already started to reposition herself in this policy field.

Third, the party competition aspect:

Up to now, the SPD does not really profit from Merkel’s weakness. Who might profit is the populist party AfD (and the liberal party FDP), but for staying in government in 2017 then a new coalition format (CDU/CSU and Greens) might be more likely. And therefore Merkel’s position would be most helpful, as seen at the Greens’ party convention recently.

All in all: Merkel might have a period of intra-party conflicts right now, but this might not be taken as too important, as a preliminary decision, for the decision on running for chancellorship again or not.

Thomas Saalfeld, Professor of Political Science, University of Bamberg

You are right that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity has dropped in recent months. The most likely explanation is the domestic and international debate about the refugee crisis. In this crisis, her authority has been challenged by a number of senior ministers in her cabinet and by the leadership of the CSU. This appearance of disunity may have harmed her ratings. However, her popularity is still remarkably high given the severity of the challenges and her long tenure in office. In my view, the CDU/CSU does not have a credible alternative candidate. In addition, it is not certain that the refugee crisis will still be so dominant in the media as we get closer to the election of 2017.

Eric Langenbacher, Adjunct Professor, Department of Government , Georgetown University

At the time of the last election in 2013 it was widely believed that Merkel would not stand again in 2017. But then, earlier this year, it seemed as if she had changed her mind, largely because of the lack of suitable successors in the Union. Who is there really? Von der Leyen? McAllister? Seehofer? Schaeuble? Despite the criticism that she is enduring over her refugee policy, these facts still stand. She is the most experienced and powerful politician in Europe–the Economist even recently deemed her “the indispensable European.” I think that most Germans and folks in the CDU/CSU understand this and in the end will support her. Moreover, Merkel is almost exactly half-way through the parliamentary term. It is not unprecedented for an incumbent to sink in the polls at this point. One development, however, should be carefully watched–the status of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) hovering between 6 and 10% in polls. The CDU and especially CSU is quite worried about an exposed right flank and this is the biggest reason for the pushback within the Union. In any case, I do not think that anything will happen before next March and the state elections–Baden-Wuerttemberg in particular.

Ed TurnerLecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University

Certainly, Merkel’s position in the CDU has become more precarious due to her position on the refugee crisis, with several senior figures, such as Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble openly criticising her.  However, the opposition SPD remains weak (and an unlikely recipient of votes from those wanting a different stance on refugees), and even if a minor party such as the Alternative for Germany or the liberal FDP gained ground, a grand coalition between CDU and SPD would certainly have a majority.  Merkel hinted in the summer she would wish to stand again.  She has a record of facing down internal party opposition – while this period might be the most challenging she has faced to date, I wouldn’t bet against her.

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