Germany is the most influential political and economic force in the European Union. A weaker German government would slow the policymaking process at the Continental level and also make the European Union less effective at dealing with financial and political crises.
In what could mark the end of an era for German politics, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Oct. 29 that she will not stand for re-election as the leader of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in December. Merkel said she wants to stay on as chancellor until her term ends in 2021, but her decision shows the extent to which her leadership has weakened because of poor election results and frictions with the CDU's junior partners in government, the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Merkel's decision came only hours after a regional election in the state of Hesse, where the CDU ended in the first position but lost more than 11 points compared with the previous election in 2013. The Hesse election took place only two weeks after the CDU's sister party, the CSU, showed weak results in a regional election in Bavaria. Some members of the CDU and the CSU believe Merkel's controversial immigration policies are partially to blame for the conservatives' drop in popularity and the loss of voters to the nationalist right. The SPD also performed poorly in Bavaria and Hesse, which triggered an internal debate within the party over whether to continue in the government coalition at the federal level. On Oct. 28, SPD leader Andrea Nahles said that the coalition must change for the SPD to remain in it.
The CDU, the CSU and the SPD formed their a "grand coalition" in March, but none of the parties are comfortable with the situation. The reluctant coalition partners joined forces only to avoid another election. Voters seem to be similarly exhausted after being governed by the same parties for the better part of the past 13 years. The elections in Bavaria and Hesse saw emerging parties like the environmentalist Greens and the nationalist Alternative for Germany rise in popularity, which suggests that voters are looking for options beyond traditional parties.
Merkel's decision is not unprecedented. In 2004, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder resigned from his position as SPD leader while remaining federal chancellor. But his party resignation marked the beginning of the end of Schroeder's chancellorship, as he lost an early federal election to Merkel the following year. Regardless of Merkel's personal future, it's clear that the German government will now enter a period of fragility. Should the SPD leave the coalition government, the CDU and the CSU would have to decide whether to continue in power as a minority government, look for other allies in parliament or call an early election. And should Merkel decide to resign as chancellor, an early election would probably follow. Considering how poorly the CDU, the CSU and the SPD are polling these days, the parties will think twice before calling an early election. But frictions, both between the parties and within them, could drive decision-making.
An early general election would probably result in a fragmented parliament and would be followed by complex coalition talks. This would leave Germany, the main political and economic player in the European Union, without strong leadership for months. And the policy process at the Continental level would likely freeze, or at least slow to a crawl, while the European Union waits for a new German government to be appointed. This could make it harder for the European Union to react effectively to political and economic challenges such as those emanating from Italy and Poland.