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End of an era: What you need to know about Merkel's planned departure

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End of an era: What you need to know about Merkel's planned departure
Merkel on Monday. Photo: DPA
17:05 CET+01:00
Angela Merkel surprised everyone by announcing she will stand down as leader of the CDU in December, and quit as German chancellor when her mandate ends in 2021. So why's she doing it now, what does it mean and what happens next?

Why now?

Standing against a blue background wearing a smart purple coloured jacket, Angela Merkel was dignified, calm and collected as she explained the reasons behind her decision at a press conference on Monday.

"Today, it is time to begin a new chapter," she told reporters at her party headquarters in Berlin.

Merkel said she had known since summer of her plans to step down. However, it’s likely she wanted to wait until the two state elections - in Bavaria and in Hesse - had passed.

The Christian Socialists (CSU) in Bavaria - sister party of the Christian Democrats (CDU) - and the CDU itself both suffered heavy losses.

Merkel probably hoped the Union would fare better in these votes, and it’s possible it had an impact on her decision to speak out now.

Political scientist and political risk consultant Marcel Dirsus, told the Local that Sunday’s election in Hesse, where the CDU achieved 27 percent of the vote - its worst result ever - could have been “the last straw”, motivating her to make the announcement the day after.

“Over the last couple of months the pressure has been building on Merkel because the centre right has been doing badly in elections - and in polls - and I think the election in Hesse has been the last straw,” he said.

But was there something more going on?

Dirsus said Merkel appears to want the best for the country - and that she probably believes her staggered timeline for leaving is "the right thing to do in the country at this moment in time".

“She’s taken the unusual step of separating the leadership of the CDU and chancellorship," continued Dirsus "She’s genuinely doing that because she thinks change is necessary and she’s at a turning point, but that Germany also needs a degree of continuity and stability."

Meanwhile Dresden-based political scientist Werner Patzelt added that Merkel’s planned decision to resign had been expected, but that he was surprised she was so clear and open.

Who could replace her and how will it change the CDU?

At least six candidates declared their interest to seek Merkel's job after she made her announcement but more could follow.

SEE ALSO: Who are Merkel's possible successors as CDU party chief?

Merkel herself wouldn’t name a successor, saying:  "I will accept any democratic decision taken by my party.”

But it’s widely known that Merkel would probably like to see CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, nicknamed AKK, take the reins.

Other contenders include ambitious health minister Jens Spahn, a frequent Merkel critic, and Friedrich Merz, an expert in financial policy and, like Spahn, he stands to the right.

Photo: DPA

Armin Laschet, elected state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, is also a potential candidate.

Munich-based Ursula Münch, political scientist of the Bundeswehr and director of the Academy for Political Education (Akademie für Politische Bildung), said the course the party would take is hard to predict without knowing Merkel’s successor.

“If we have Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer it wouldn’t be such a tremendous change compared to Merkel,” she said.

“But someone like Friedrich Merz who is quite conservative, or Jens Spahn - then it could of course be a big change.”

How will they feel following in her footsteps?

Probably a little worried. Merkel has been governing Germany for 13 years and has been CDU leader for 18.

“Being chancellor of Germany is a really difficult job,” said Dirsus. “They will have a bonus because they’re not going to be Merkel, but the next person to lead the party needs to be able to unite different factions, but also have an appeal to the electorate at large.”

It’s fair to say Merkel has not only had a big impact on Germany, but the world.

SEE ALSO: From Kohl's 'girl' to 'Mutti'- German chancellor embarks on last lap

Dirsus believes that the perception some people have of Merkel on the international stage will have an impact on whoever takes over.

“People abroad have this image of Merkel as saviour of the world, so it will be tough to follow in her footsteps,” he said.

Will Merkel last as Chancellor until 2021?

Quite possibly not. Merkel, dubbed the "eternal chancellor", may not get to choose her own timetable for her long goodbye, as her departure could be hastened if the SPD brings down the government before 2021.

Münch said it was “quite possible” that the grand coalition of the CDU and SPD “will not be in this position for this whole period” (until Merkel’s term ends). If the SPD signals that it wants out, a general election would have to be held.

Münch also said there may be a push to get rid of Merkel, regardless of the state of the grand coalition.

“There will be people who try to remove her as chancellor - so she is in a weaker position," she said.

“I wouldn’t bet on her making the rest of her term.”

Will Germany miss her?

Germany is increasingly polarized on Merkel, and everyone has a different opinion on the way she’s led the country.

However, Dirsus believes she will be missed, even by those who don’t rate her very much.

“There are a lot of people in Germany who take for granted Angela Merkel as their chancellor,” he said. “She provides steady leadership, has defended democracy and liberal norms, She’s stood up for a lot of values we hold dearly in the west,”

Merkel has had many defining moments - viewed as good and bad - throughout her career, from her stance on refugees to her tough measures imposed on Greece in the wake of the economic crisis.

A woman holds up a "Merkel must go" poster at a right wing demo in Hamburg in February. Photo: DPA

Münch believes Merkel will be remembered positively for leading Germany and EU through the financial crisis. “On the other hand the perspective that she made wrong decisions regarding refugee policies” will not be recalled so warmly, she said.

However, when it comes down to it, Merkel’s long period in power, doing politics rationally and without too many emotions, will be remembered fondly, according to commentators.

The fact that she was “not only thinking about her own power and career, but also having a perspective for the bigger issues” will be important, said Münch

“I think that’s the picture we will see and read in the history books.”

Dirsus added: “She represents a calm and calculated Germany, and things could have been a lot worse.”

Has the AfD won?

One of Alternative for Germany's (AfD) slogans is: “Merkel muss weg” (Merkel must go) so the party will claim this as a victory.

In fact AfD co-leader Jörg Meuthen has already hailed Merkel's planned departure as "good news". But might having their enemy out of the picture come back and bite them in the bum?

“The AfD has lost a main target,” said Patzelt. “They wanted to get rid of Merkel and at first sight, this is one of their successes.”

However, Patzelt warns, they will now lose that 'Merkel' argument, if Merkel isn't there.

“If the new leadership of the CDU is willing and able to change the course of Germany's immigration policies, which were erroneous in the past, then the AfD would have even more problems to attract voters,” he said.

We have no way of knowing just yet, but depending on how the new CDU leadership proceeds, Merkel’s decision might damage the electoral chances of the AfD in future.

Is this a new era of politics?

Perhaps. There’s been much talk about the death of people’s parties - Volkspartei - in Germany, meaning the CDU and SPD. So could the future be about a bigger variety of smaller parties coming up through the ranks?

“Beneath the surface it is the end of the two big people’s parties; both have failed,” Patzelt said.

According to Patzelt, Merkel’s move to the left of centre contributed to the downfall of the SPD because “there was no longer political manoevering space” for them as well as her own party.

Plus her immigration policies "opened up political space for the AfD, which for a long time, if not forever will be the main rival of the CDU,” said Patzelt.

So Merkel has, arguably, contributed to a “deep ongoing transformation” of German politics, Patzelt said.

And who might be the winners? At the moment there are two parties that have benefitted from the current decline of Volkspartei.

“The Greens and the AfD are presumably the two most mobilizing, most vivid -  and the two most attractive political forces of the future,” said Patzelt.

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