Merkel’s party hammered in key regional vote – what comes next?

The parties of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's right-left "grand coalition" took a beating Sunday, strengthening fears that the second tough regional election in as many weeks could threaten the alliance's survival.

Merkel's party hammered in key regional vote - what comes next?
Top party candidates Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel (SPD), Tarek Al-Wazir (Greens ) und Volker Bouffier (CDU) looking at results. Photo: DPA

After allowing more than one million migrants into Germany since 2015,
sparking a strong backlash against immigration, Merkel has been battling for
her political future.

According to an exit poll in Hesse state by public broadcaster ARD, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) shed around 10 points for a 28-percent score, compared with 38.3 percent in 2013.

Meanwhile junior federal coalition partners the Social Democrats (SPD) tumbled almost 11 points to 20 percent.

The blow follows similar losses for Merkel's CSU sister party in Bavaria's regional poll earlier this month.

The result is another milestone in the long decline of the big-tent “people's parties” CDU and SPD that have dominated German politics for decades.

Electoral momentum is on the side of newer parties, more tightly focused on a narrow range of issues.

Propelled by the backlash to Merkel's migration policy into the federal Bundestag last year, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) is now represented in all 16 of Germany's state legislatures, after Hessian voters handed it a 12-percent score.

The protest party has eaten into both the CDU and SPD vote by railing against migrants and refugees as well as uncaring Berlin elites.

The chancellor is weakened after years of battling over her 2015 open borders decision.

While migration and asylum policy has been sharply tightened since, it has not been enough to stop desertions to the AfD and disquiet in the CDU's own ranks.

Stay the course

After 13 years with Merkel at the helm, most of them in coalition with the SPD, many Germans are tired of government by carefully-crafted compromise, calling instead for clear direction on pressing policy issues like migration, security, reform of the European Union and climate change.

Nor did the veteran leader's fourth government get off to a good start after its formation earlier this year, with two rows over relatively minor points bringing it to the brink of collapse over the summer.

The SPD has suffered a string of regional defeats and last year's worst national election score since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949.

Meanwhile, the Hessian Greens almost doubled its 2013 share of the vote that helped it into a coalition with the CDU, garnering 20 percent of the ballots.

The party attracts voters who favour welcoming refugees, worry about climate change or are fed up with the indulging of car companies during a years-long scandal over harmful emissions from diesel vehicles.

Even before the results were known, however, leading politicians in the Berlin coalition were signalling to the party rank-and-file to stay the course.

“No-one can say with 100 percent certainty how stable things will stay, what kind of dynamics will emerge” after the election, CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said Thursday.

Seen by many as Merkel's anointed successor, Kramp-Karrenbauer cautioned
that “if the government falls apart now, it will result in new elections,” a barely concealed warning to would-be coalition breakers in both the CDU and SPD.

As to whether Merkel could be toppled, Finance minister and SPD hopeful for
chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Sunday: “I'm not Mrs Merkel's spokesman, but…
she has told the public that she was elected for the whole parliament” of four

Short of an end to the coalition, internal frustration in the CDU could instead bubble up in a weak score for Merkel when she stands for re-election
as party leader in December – or even a surprise victory for a challenger.

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Merkel will step down as chancellor in 2021

Angela Merkel will step down as German chancellor when her mandate ends in 2021, a party source told AFP Monday, following a series of political crises and regional vote debacles rocking her fragile coalition.

Merkel will step down as chancellor in 2021
Merkel at a CDU meeting on October 29th. Photo: DPA

She told party top brass her mandate running to 2021 will be “her last term”, a party source said, adding that she has no plans to seek a post in the European Commission following that despite speculation to that effect in Brussels.

Merkel had been widely expected to be reelected as CDU chief at a party congress in December.

She is due to give a press conference at 1pm.

The surprise news comes a day after the CDU and its junior federal coalition partner the Social Democrats (SPD) suffered heavy losses in an election in the state of Hesse, just two weeks after a similar drubbing in Bavaria.

Both polls have been seen as damning verdicts on the right-left “grand coalition” in Berlin which has lurched from crisis to crisis, often over the hot-button issue of migration.

'Mistake' to cling to power

With her authority badly weakened by last September's inconclusive general election and ongoing squabbles in her unhappy coalition, the chancellor has faced mounting calls to prepare Germany for the post-Merkel era.

Die Welt reporter Robin Alexander said the path could now be clear for Merkel's chosen heir, CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to take the reins if no other credible candidate emerges by December.

“The two women have taken back the momentum, because none of their opponents were ready for this,” he tweeted.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said on Sunday it would be “a mistake” for Merkel to cling to power.

“By passing the baton of her own free will she would show that she knows  the same thing everyone knows: the end of her chancellorship is approaching.”

Merkel's 13 years as chancellor have piled up baggage from repeated compromise-laden “grand coalitions” with the SPD, as well as a fateful 2015 decision to keep Germany's borders open, ultimately allowing in more than one million migrants.

The mass arrivals are credited with fuelling the rise of the far-right, but Merkel has resisted calls to steer the CDU further rightward in response.

Railing against the newcomers, the right wing to far-right anti-immigrant AfD is now the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag, and has seats in all of Germany's state parliaments.

AfD leader Jörg Meuthen hailed news of Merkel's eventual exit as “good news” and said he expected her to also “give up her chancellorship soon”. 

Coalition hammered

No party has haemorrhaged more support in recent years than the SPD, which has wilted as the junior partner governing in Merkel's shadow.

Preliminary final results showed both of the formerly dominant parties being hit with losses of around 11 percentage points in Hesse, western Germany, compared with the last election in 2013, although the CDU still claimed first place with 27 percent of the vote.

The SPD plunged to its worst result in decades to tie for second place with the up-and-coming ecologist Greens, each at 19.8 percent.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) meanwhile took 13.1 percent to enter the Hesse state legislature for the first time.

That result would allow the current state government of the CDU and Greens to continue, albeit with a thinner majority.

SPD ultimatum

SPD chief Andrea Nahles said on Monday her centre-left party, Germany's oldest, had failed “to break free from the government” and stand out in its right.

She said the SPD would now propose a “discussion paper” in Berlin demanding concrete progress on key issues over the next year, including pension rights and better childcare, before deciding whether to remain in the coalition.

The unstable government almost collapsed twice over the summer, notably when Merkel restrained hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer's attempts to toughen up migrant policy.

Increasing numbers of SPD members have been calling for the party to quit government and lick its wounds in opposition, as it is presently polling below AfD nationwide, at 15 percent to the far-right's 16 percent.