German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Monday that she’s stepping down as the party chief of the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, and that she won’t seek re-election to Germany’s highest political office in 2021. “The time has come to open a new chapter,” she explained, leaving pundits scrambling to figure out who might succeed Europe’s most powerful leader.
For the first time in at least a decade, no one can accuse German politics of being boring.
The political handwringing about Germany’s political future had preceded Merkel’s announcement. In the election in the state of Hesse on Sunday, the CDU won only 27.9 percent of the vote—a 10 percentage point drop from the 38.3 percent it received in the previous election, in 2013. The vote share of the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD, was just 19.9 percent, which was also more than 10 percentage points lower than in 2013. The paltry vote share garnered by the two centrist parties that have dominated German politics for decades has opened the door for smaller rivals. Internationally, most attention has focused on the xenophobic, far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which gained 12 percent of the vote and entered the state Parliament for the first time. But the environmentalist Greens made even more impressive gains, securing 19.5 percent of the vote. The results of the Hesse election are eerily similar to those of the Bavarian election that took place earlier this month. There too the two main parties flopped—to the benefit of the Greens and the AfD.
Subnational elections in Germany haven’t always felt like momentous bellwether moments for national politics, but in recent years, as Merkel’s government has felt more and more precarious, these state-level contests have done a relatively good job of predicting the results of national votes. And so, in the wake of important—and visible—disagreements between the CDU and its coalition partners over certain issues this fall—the uproar over the perceived far-right sympathies of Germany’s spy chief, for instance—the elections in Bavaria and Hesse could be something of a crystal ball.
Political changes are finally coming to Germany, and these recent elections point to three of them: The AfD has cemented its influence on politics, the Greens have an unprecedented opportunity to play kingmaker, and Bavaria, Germany’s bastion of conservatism, faces an uncertain future—for just the second time since 1962, the Christian Socialist Union, or CSU, sister party of Merkel’s CDU, no longer has a single-party majority in the Bavarian Parliament. These results make it clear that there are several forces shaking up German politics—forces that help explain Merkel’s recent announcement—and they muddy the prevailing notion that it’s only the AfD that’s redrawing the country’s political landscape.
Since 2015, the most unmissable story of contemporary German politics has centered on the jaw-dropping rise of the far right. Whereas just a few years ago the AfD was viewed as a fringe group with little national influence, today it’s gained a meaningful degree of political legitimacy. In the federal election last fall, the AfD won enough votes to put delegates in the Bundestag, in turn gaining access to a national pulpit from which to toss around its anti-democratic, racist views and forcing other parties to think twice about how they negotiate the political scene. Meanwhile, on the state level, the fact that the AfD handily surpassed the 5 percent threshold in the Hesse election means that it will now be represented in all of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments, underscoring the ballooning popularity of its message since the European refugee crisis began in earnest in 2015.
But it’s not just the right that’s putting pressure on the center—the left is too. Increasingly, the insurgent Greens are chipping away at what was for decades the unshakable control of large parties, capitalizing not only on the historic losses of the SPD and the mainstream left but also on voters’ growing frustration with Merkel’s 13-year tenure as chancellor and, more specifically, with the brand of incremental, pragmatic conservatism that’s guided her career from East German scientist to becoming the longest-serving democratic head of government in Europe today.
The Greens’ success is due in part to its willingness to marry political pragmatism with radical fervor. In the decades since it formed in 1980, the party has gradually and steadily moved beyond a purely environmentalist platform to tackling economic and social issues such as workforce development and immigration. As Priska Hinz, one of the heads of the Greens party in Hesse, told Deutsche Welle after the Bavarian election, “We no longer just consider solutions that are only important to 5, 6, or 8 percent of voters. Rather, we broadly position our topics and solutions so that lots of people can get something out of it.” As the Greens’ shocking surge in the recent state elections suggests, this retooled strategy, coupled with the CDU’s atrophying popularity, appears to be working in the party’s favor.
As for the stability of German politics going forward, the complete shellacking of the CDU and SPD in the Hesse election, coming only two weeks after a similarly dismal outcome in Bavaria, is another sign that Merkel’s “grand coalition” government may be on the verge of collapse. The SPD was already reluctant about re-entering a federal governing coalition with Merkel, blaming its recent electoral setbacks on the compromises it had to make in order to keep the last coalition afloat. The center-left is also likely to be nervous about who will be leading its conservative partners once Merkel bows out. It seems that German politics will remain interesting for a long time to come.