As I walked the streets of an overcast Munich early this week, the news hit like a thunderbolt: while intending to finish her term as chancellor, Angela Merkel will surrender her leadership of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at the party’s conference in Hamburg in early December. Especially for many younger Germans, the news came as a deep shock: after 18 years at the helm of the CDU and 13 years atop German politics, Merkel had grown synonymous with both her party and the chancellorship.
In the end, that proved to be her undoing. In the aftermath of the Bavarian regional elections two weeks ago, CDU officials in Berlin blamed their sister party’s poor performance on the cantankerous behavior of Horst Seehofer, the interior minister from Bavaria, and the erratic campaign of Markus Söder, the governor of the state. Both men had aggressively challenged the chancellor’s immigration stance over the summer, leading to a near collapse of the coalition government in Berlin. If anything, so CDU leaders whispered, the Christian Social Union (CSU) had it coming.
In the state of Hessen, CDU party leaders promised, the story would be different. After all, the CDU governor, Volker Bouffier, could boast of a productive working coalition with the Greens, passing one reform after another in a state that encompasses the city of Frankfurt. But in the Hessian capital Wiesbaden the mood was palpably different this weekend. One elderly woman with longstanding CDU ties told me of friends deciding to vote for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country’s rising populist-nationalist party. The reason? To protest Merkel’s past indulgences on the issue of immigration. When the first returns on Sunday evening showed the CDU and Social Democratic Party (SPD) losing over 10 percent each while the Greens gained voters, the implication was undeniable: the Hessen election was overshadowed by the coalition government in Berlin. At 27 percent of the vote state-wide, the CDU had underperformed, missing the 30 percent threshold many observers believed necessary for Merkel to quell the growing unrest in her ranks.