Angela Merkel’s time in power is historic in many ways. She is the first female leader of Germany; she is the second longest serving Chancellor ever; and she is the first modern Chancellor to come from the east of the country.
But her reign is also notable for the fact that she will be the first Chancellor to leave the top job at a time of her own choosing. While Merkel did face internal pressure in her CDU party to step aside after the refugee crisis, she held on to name autumn 2021 as her end date.
From Konrad Adenauer, through Helmut Schmidt to Helmut Kohl, all of Germany’s great Chancellors – and all the less well known ones – have been pushed from power either after losing an election or by being forced to resign.
So, when will she go?
On September 26th Germany is voting for a new national parliament. Out of that parliament a new national government will emerge, but Merkel will likely have to stay in office for a little while longer.
Immediately after the election, Merkel and her cabinet will continue to run the country in a caretaker capacity until a new government can be built.
If history is any guide, this could take anywhere from one month to half a year.
Coalition talks after the last election in 2017 were so fractious that it took until March of the following year for the new cabinet to be sworn in. By that time, the SPD were sick of playing second fiddle to the CDU and were only coaxed into a coalition after the liberal FDP refused to join a government with Merkel and the Greens.
Normally, though, things don’t take so long.
After the 2013 election it took less than three months for Merkel to be confirmed by the Bundestag as the head of a new government. In 2009 it didn’t even take a month for the CDU to form a new government with the FDP.
How long is it likely to take this time around?
There are two conflicting forces that are likely to pull the negotiating time in different directions this time around.
On the one hand, we are likely to end up with the most evenly balanced Bundestag in post-war history, with up to five different coalitions possible depending on the election results.
With the CDU and SPD neck and neck in the polls it looks like no one party will emerge as the clear winner.
So the CDU might try and build a coalition with the Greens. But if they don’t have the numbers, they might have to try and bring the FDP on board in an awkward three-way team.
Alternatively, the SPD, who are surging in polling, might try and build a coalition with the Greens, or with the Greens and the FDP or (less likely) with the Greens and the fringe Left Party.
Or, the CDU and SPD might decide to go into another grand coalition together (although this would be an option of last resort).
All of these possible constellations mean that some furious negotiating is to be expected after the election as parties try to push their policies and grab the best ministries for their people.
On the other hand, we are still in the midst of one of the major crises of the past half century. And if last year is anything to go by, coronavirus cases will rise again when the weather gets colder.
No one wants a lame duck Chancellor in power in the middle of a national emergency. So everyone has an interest in a new cabinet being sworn in as quickly as possible.
Breaking Kohl’s record?
Helmut Kohl is the longest serving Chancellor in modern German history. He was in power from October 1st, 1982 until October 26th, 1998, or 5,869 days to be precise. (Otto von Bismarck was in power for 19 years at the end of the 19th century but that was technically a different state).
If no new government is formed by December 17th, Merkel will become the longest serving Chancellor in modern history. Whatever happens, she has been in power for a remarkable long time for a western leader, as this Tweet shows.
— Simon Kuestenmacher (@simongerman600) August 19, 2021
Due mainly to Merkel’s own legacy, she could well also remain the longest serving Chancellor in the foreseeable future.
Even within her own party, critics say that the last few years of her ‘eternal’ leadership were marked by stagnation and avoidance of reform.
Green candidate Annalena Baerbock now wants to bring in term limits for Chancellors and polling shows that a majority of Germans agree with her.
As for Merkel, asked recently what she will enjoy most about her retirement, she said “not having to constantly make decisions”.