It’s not made many headlines outside Germany, but the resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Angela Merkel’s handpicked successor as leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, may be the first step in a broader European political realignment.
Ostensibly she is stepping down because of the mismanaged response to a minor political squabble. Last year’s state election in Thuringia delivered the usual stalemate. Two parties got more than half of the votes between them: the Left party (a successor party to the former East Germany’s communists) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a newer right of centre party. Both are customarily labelled ‘far left’ and ‘far right’.
In post-election horse trading, the CDU and the AfD voted together to install a candidate from the liberal Free Democratic party as state premier. This ignited a huge row because it infringed a Merkel prohibition on working with the AfD. And Kramp-Karrenbauer seems to be paying the price for being unable to control events.
Perhaps Kramp-Karrenbauer would have stayed if all else was hunky dory. It’s not. Events in Thuringia have exposed the looming issue of the positioning of right of centre (and indeed left of centre) political forces in a soon to be post-Merkel Germany.
When half of the voters choose parties which orthodox opinion labels ‘far-X’, it suggests at the very least that there ought to be less focus on labels and and more attention paid to policy.
It also throws into question the strategy of labelling to justify political exclusion. Labelling can be powerful stuff, particularly in Germany. In 1933, two parties committed to the violent destruction of liberal ‘bourgeois’ democracy – the far right (National Socialists) and far left (Moscow-aligned Communists) – scored more than half the votes. Read the Wikipedia pages if you are tempted to think that the Left party and AfD fall into these categories.
Germany’s (and Europe’s) current political stability owes much to Angela Merkel’s personal rule. She embodies the compromises which saw Germany take in one million migrants from Middle Eastern conflict in 2015. This period also saw the two historically dominant political parties – Merkel’s CDU and its governing coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party – dwindle to barely 50% electoral support between them.
The future for the centre right after her departure (before the 2021 federal election she has said) is far from clear.
Election victories for Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and even, in France, Emmanuel Macron were associated with a more diverse, but in some respects more traditional, coalition and a little less ‘me too’ compromising with progressive politics.
Germans, disciplined in politics in accordance with the stereotype, have persisted longer than most with what might be termed extreme centrism.
So the election of a new CDU party leader later in the year might provide an indication of what will succeed Merkelism after Merkel. As the post of party leader and Chancellor are usually combined, it’s possible that it may even hasten the departure of Merkel herself.
And if you want to construe a wider political lesson, consider the need to listen to voters before building your coalition on the exclusion of others. Which might give the National Party food for thought when considering its electoral strategy this year.