Merkel’s legacy

Germany’s longstanding Chancellor stands down, leaving a legacy that has shaped 21st century politics

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the handover of the annual expert report from the Commission of Experts for Research and Innovation in Berlin, Feb. 17, 2016. Photo by Rainer Jensen—dpa/Corbis.

— 5 minute read — by Sam Feierabend

In 2021, we will see the conclusion of Angela Merkel’s 16-year tenure as Chancellor of Germany. In that time she has become one of the modern world’s most influential leaders and is considered as one of Germany’s greatest chancellors. Many political commentators have described her as the de facto leader of the EU and, since Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States in 2016, she has been considered the leader of the free world. But what comes next for Germany? A country seen as incredibly politically stable since its reformation in 1949 is facing unprecedented challenges dealing with the ongoing pandemic and many fear that any potential successor will not be as effective in leadership. Germans will head to the polling stations in autumn 2021 and, while there seemingly is a two-horse race to replace Merkel, one thing is certain: whoever it is will have a strong legacy to build upon.

Growing up in East Germany, Merkel became engaged in politics with the novelty of democratic elections in the previously Soviet state. She went on to serve in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s cabinet, taking various ministerial roles before taking the reins of the party herself. The centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has anti-communist roots, but as Soviet occupation faded into memory, moved to represent an ideology that has been described as ‘liberal conservatism’- combining progressive stances on the environment, labour and international relations with conservative fiscal and cultural policies.

In 2005, five years after becoming leader of her party, Merkel was appointed to succeed Gerhard Schroder as Chancellor, leading a grand coalition consisting of the CDU, their Bavarian counterpart Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Merkel was the first woman to be elected Chancellor, and the first chancellor since reunification to have been raised in East Germany.

Merkel walked into the Bundestag as only the eighth Chancellor since the Basic Law constitution was set up in West Germany in 1949 by Konrad Adenauer. It is largely seen as one of the strongest constitutions in the democratic world, given the stability of each leader elected and their open minds towards the strengths of leading coalitions spanning the political spectrum, and their efficient voting system blending first-past-the-post with proportional representation. Merkel’s strength and popularity as a leader was proven beyond doubt in 2013’s federal elections when the party under her reign came within five seats of the first absolute majority in the Bundestag since 1957.

At no point in her 16-year tenure did Merkel form a majority government, meaning her policies had to appease members across the political spectrum in order to require sufficient support to become law. Her foreign policy has widely been one of emphasized international cooperation, both in the context of the EU, and strengthening economic relations. As President of the European Council, Merkel played a central role in the negotiation of the Treaty of Lisbon and the Berlin Declaration, as well as managing the global financial crisis and European debt crisis in 2008, leading to worldwide praise. To combat the recession as a result of this crisis, she negotiated a stimulus package focussing on infrastructure spending and public investment. This went beyond reparation, bringing a historic level of success as unemployment dropped below 3 million for the first time since 1989. She also helped oversee reformation of the Bundeswehr (army) to remove conscription. International relations saw Merkel excel, and perhaps her most impressive feat is maintaining positive relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the entirety of her chancellorship- a historic pressure point for tensions between the east and west of Europe.

Merkel’s domestic policy often led to her loudest criticisms. As an advocate of free movement and migration, her stance on immigration was relaxed compared to politicians around her. As countries such as France and Britain grappled with an influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, Merkel welcomed them with open arms with the aim of integrating them into German society. The surge in immigration coupled with a Eurozone crisis in 2016 led to Merkel’s lowest approval rating of her chancellorship – 47 percent: still relatively high for a major European leader. As right-wing populist movements across Europe gained popularity and political representation, Merkel suppressed the Alternative for Germany to 12 percent of the vote share in 2017, comfortably ensuring a fourth term as Chancellor.

At the CDU convention in 2018, Merkel announced that she would stand down as party leader and not seek a fifth term as Chancellor. Her successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer failed to connect with voters of the party and announced her intention to step down before the next elections. In her place, the CDU elected ‘Merkelite’ Armin Laschet to lead the party into 2021. As a character, he has been described as having the moderate, pragmatic political outlook of Angela Merkel, plus the cross-party deal-making skills of Joe Biden, combined with the irreverent, mischievous, slightly clownish personality of Boris Johnson. He has however faced fierce criticism for his historic opposition of same-sex marriage and refusal to demonise Vladimir Putin for the annexation of the Crimea.

Despite these controversies, early polling suggests a 19 percentage point lead for the CDU/CSU, indicating a path to another comfortable victory exists. But the unique position of this party is that they have to nominate one of their two leaders- Laschet for the CDU and Markus Soder for the CSU- to run for Chancellor. Current polling shows that Soder is the German public’s preferred choice for the position but this may change as Laschet starts to campaign his policies to the public.

Realistically, Laschet and Soder face the unenviable task of succeeding Angela Merkel. Her influence on modern politics in unprecedented in upholding and modernising one of the most stable democracies in the Western world. History seems to have been kind to German chancellors since World War Two, resulting in successful governments and a stable, prosperous nation. Yet the political environment of the day is a challenging one, with COVID-19 still menacing and Germany struggling to vaccinate the population while other nations are thriving. Whichever person leads the Bundestag into the future has to continue the legacy of one of the great 21st century politicians.