While many will rightly mourn the absence of Merkel’s leadership in the face of rising populism in Europe, German political parties should see her departure as an opportunity to reengage with the public to contain extremist narratives.
A transition to new political leadership (which could happen a lot sooner than the official end of Merkel’s term) could serve as a catalyst for mainstream parties to reclaim the public discourse. German politics have been roiled by progressive and nativist forces, which have shifted votes and power from the old mainstream parties to non-majority parties, namely the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Greens. We haven’t seen a clear shift to the far right, as many have feared — rather, German politics seem to be in a state of general turbulence.
The far-right AfD has been emboldened as traditional parties have surrendered the public debate with little more to offer except hope that voters will recognize the benefits of their technocratic policies when they see them. Since last September, the AfD entered parliament for the first time and for a moment was the second-strongest party in national polls thanks to its strident anti-refugee rhetoric.
But amid the noise on the manufactured ills of immigration and threats to German identity, a pro-European Green party has emerged as a clear alternative.
The Greens’ platform has been the most effective nonpopulist counterpart to the AfD, as the Bavarian and Hessian state election results from recent weeks impressively show. With 19 percent, the party now has taken the position of second-strongest party in national polls from the AfD (16 percent), ranking only behind Merkel’s CDU/CSU.
The Greens are not simply a left-wing version of the AfD. Fifty-five percent of Germans view the Greens as a centrist party, and 47 percent could imagine voting for them. The Greens’ popularity indicates that there is potential to change the conversation to a liberal and conservative middle again.
With Merkel’s decision to resign the party chair in December and chancellorship in 2021, the CDU will have a new opportunity to make its case to the public.
Three serious centrist candidates have emerged in the race for Merkel’s succession: her longtime political foe, Friedrich Merz, a classic conservative who went into self-exile after his role diminished increasingly under Merkel’s rising star in the mid-2000s; Jens Spahn, the current health minister and a modern type of right-winger, who fiercely criticized Merkel for her refugee policy; and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s handpicked successor as party secretary general, who is pragmatic like her but bears a good sense for the socially conservative profile of her party and understands the need for crafting compelling conservative narratives.
Their candidacies will give a voice to the different factions within the party and widen the appeal of the CDU before a disillusioned German public.
The CDU could certainly move further to the right under the new leadership. But this will give the SPD the margin to sharpen its own left-wing profile.
A more conservative CDU could recapture votes lost to the AfD. But simply mimicking the AfD’s extreme rhetoric, like the Bavarian CSU tried in its state elections, doesn’t work. Instead, the CDU would need to develop a comprehensive conservative platform again that addresses people’s priorities and offers a distinct political option.
After all, one of the terms most associated with Merkel’s rule is “alternativlosigkeit” (a state without alternatives and, hence, political choices, but only one of necessity).
This could finally change. German politics need an injection of new leaders and ideas to push back against the destructive populism of the far right.