Merkel on the spot after painful vote in Hesse

German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced a bitter political reality on Monday after the parties in her fragile coalition suffered heavy losses in a key regional election and a junior partner made threats to quit.

Merkel on the spot after painful vote in Hesse
Merkel speaking at an election presentation in Hesse on October 25th. Photo: DPA

German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced a bitter political reality on Monday after the parties in her fragile coalition suffered heavy losses in a key regional election and a junior partner made threats to quit.

Sunday's blow for Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU)
and the Social Democrats (SPD) in Hesse was the latest state poll marred by
the image of the right-left “grand coalition” government limping from crisis
to crisis at a federal level.

“The situation for Merkel is grave,” daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said late
Sunday. “Now the question is whether we'll soon have to write 'in liquidation'
after her coalition.”

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.

Meanwhile, the SPD tumbled to a tie for second place with the up-and-coming
ecologist Greens, each at 19.8 percent.

Showing political gains was the right-wing anti-immigrant party Alternative
for Germany (AfD) which took 13.1 percent of the vote to enter the Hesse state legislature for the first time.

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


Merkel's first order of business when she speaks at 1pm in Berlin will be bucking up the Social Democrats, who have threatened to leave the federal coalition that many blame for years of disappointing electoral setbacks.

That would almost certainly trigger fresh elections and perhaps the end of
Merkel's political career.

“The state of the government is unacceptable,” SPD general secretary Andrea
Nahles said on Sunday, demanding from the CDU a “clear, binding roadmap for politics in the interest of the citizens”.

She was seeking to strike a sober contrast to the highly personal internal
quarrels of the conservative camp in recent months.

The ruling parties are like “two people drowning while chained to each
other,” political scientist Hans Vorländer of the University of Dresden told public broadcaster ARD.

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

Armed with Nahles's checklist, by September 2019 the SPD “will be able to
see whether this government is still the right place for us”, the party leader
said in an implicit threat to the chancellor.

After federal elections in September 2017 defined by sharp drops for both the centre-right and left and the appearance of the far-right in the Bundestag
(parliament) for the first time, the SPD agreed only reluctantly to back Merkel yet again.

Rendez-vous in December

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

But Merkel also has to shore up support among her own party, where more and more members are calling her leadership into question.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – widely seen as the chancellor's anointed successor – spoke of a “very painful” night for the CDU in Hesse.

It was the second regional vote in quick succession to disappoint the conservative camp, after a battering in Bavaria two weeks ago.

Merkel's 13 years in power 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.

Although there are many months before the next regional poll, a vote
touching the chancellor more personally is slated for December, when she must stand for reelection as party chief”.

In Merkel's situation, clinging on would be a worse mistake” than giving
up the party presidency, conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
commented late Sunday.

“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.”

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.