A fourth term for Angela Merkel? Germany's media are antsy. Does she want to be chancellor again, or not? We're unlikely to get a clear answer now; there’s too much political uncertainty, says Kay-Alexander Scholz.
Things were very different in the last general election, back in 2013. Angela Merkel declared two summers in advance that she had no intention of leaving the chancellor’s office. The summer break in Germany is now almost at an end, and Germans still don’t know whether Merkel will be standing for election in a year’s time. She's keeping us on our toes this time around. But then she can’t really do otherwise. In 2011, in cozy, neo-bourgeois Germany, all was still right with the world. The crises of the day were happening a long way away, in other EU states. Merkel’s popularity ratings were high. The election was about her and her alone.
Last year's refugee crisis has changed everything. Public opinion is divided. Half the population still approves of the Chancellor. The other half ranges from critical to downright hostile. Many grassroots members of her own party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), are disgruntled, or have switched allegiance to the anti-mass-migration AfD (Alternative for Germany) party. Merkel the superstar? Not any more.
CSU still unsure
As a result, this time around Merkel is particularly reliant on the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). However, her refugee policy has so annoyed them that some members of the CSU leadership are threatening to field their own candidate, while others have publicly stated that they won’t be supporting Merkel. The CSU leader, Horst Seehofer, is currently hanging back and refusing to pledge his support for her, because he still doesn’t know whether or not he should back the Merkel horse in this race for the chancellorship. The general political weather is currently too uncertain.
For example, the unspoken question hanging in the air is: Will the terrorism situation remain as calm as it has to date, or will there be more attacks in Germany, perhaps perpetrated by a refugee who was allowed into the country? The public mood after the attacks in July indicated just how quickly Merkel’s and the CDU’s opinion poll ratings could crash if that were to happen. And the CSU would risk being dragged down along with them. The only way for the party to prevent that would be to clearly isolate itself from Merkel.
Furthermore, there are two state elections coming up in September. Pollsters are only venturing predictions of how well the CDU and AfD are likely to do. In Merkel’s home region of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the AfD could well become the strongest party. This would be a disaster for the CDU, and for Merkel. It’s also unclear how refugee numbers will pan out this year. The latest prognoses estimate that the figure for 2016 will be "only" 300,000 - far fewer than the 1 million people who came to Germany last year.
But if the agreement between the EU and Turkey should prove less than watertight, pressure from migration could also increase again. If that happens, Merkel's "We can do this" mantra will be the source of even more resentment.
However, if the coming weeks and months are quiet from the CDU/CSU's point of view, there is actually very little standing in the way of another Merkel candidacy. There is no successor waiting in the wings. On many European issues, from the Ukraine crisis to Brexit, Merkel is now a fixed point of reference. This is how she sees it, too, and so far she's shown hardly any signs of getting tired.
There is one date that Merkel is focussing on. The CDU convenes for its annual party conference in December. Berlin has already stated that Merkel wants to remain CDU party chairman for another two years. If that is this case, she will have to address the question of her "dictatorship" as chancellor, too.
Should she remain in office as leader after the 2017 elections, Merkel would be able to catch up with the "eternal" chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who ruled Germany for all of 16 years, from 1982 to 1998.