In the last year, since recovering from the hit her approval ratings took in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis, Angela Merkel’s march towards a fourth term victory has seemed like a triumphal procession at times. Bookies and commentators viewed a fourth term for ‘Mutti’ as inevitable, the cult of personality surrounding her showed no signs of waning, and her dominance of the political landscape seemed total and unshakeable, her lead in the opinion polls large and consistent. She remains the heavy favourite to win the federal election this autumn, but suddenly under the leadership of Martin Schulz, their newly chosen candidate for Chancellor, the SDP have leapt into contention with the CDU-CSU. Most polls show a tight race, some have even put the SDP ahead, there has certainly been a tightening in the contest to be the next Chancellor of Germany.
Aside from the likelihood that Schulz, not exactly the perfect candidate a party would choose if it could create one, is enjoying a honeymoon, there are a lot of interests in making the election appear closer than it is. The media want a race that will sell newspapers and draw in viewers, the SDP desperately want to put themselves back into contention after being also-rans for the last two election cycles and even Merkel’s own internal party critics would like to see her feet held to the fire and have her forced to shore up her base and move closer to their positions on issues such as refugee policy. The rise of the AfD has certainly hurt Merkel’s base, for a long time she seemed able to move her party ever closer to the centre with no threat from the right within or outside the CDU-CSU.
The 2015 migrant crisis, when Merkel opened Germany’s doors to anyone who wanted to come, changed all that. The AfD were clearly on the rise before then, finding ground in the space Merkel had opened up on her right and fuelled by unease at German bailouts of the Euro crisis, but the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in 2015, and the inevitable challenges that it brought, provided the party with the rocket fuel it needed to take off into the mainstream. A score of state election successes have followed, despite controversial and distasteful comments from leading AfD figures, and Merkel’s path back to the Chancellery has narrowed.
Merkel’s challenges don’t end with the fracturing of the right-wing vote, she also has to contend with an uncertain economic picture. German manufacturing output has risen at its fastest rate since 2011, and the overall economy has grown at its quickest pace for three years, but the signs of overheating and a need for caution are there. The Deutsche Bank crisis that loomed last autumn has receded from the headlines, but the underlying problems have not disappeared, inflationary pressure is rising in Germany and the old chestnut of another eurozone crisis is lurking just beneath the surface. Of course, governments can benefit from economic uncertainty, particularly right-wing governments with an economically untrusted left-wing opposition, voters can sometimes plump for safety. That partly explains John Major’s historic 1992 win against the odds. Yet, Merkel is so personally associated with keeping the eurozone crisis under control that its re-emergence and the need for German taxpayers to reach into their pockets again could be damaging for her.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Merkel’s quest for a fourth term is voter apathy and desire for change. Only a handful of politicians in modern vibrant democracies have won four consecutive terms in office. John Howard in Australia was one remarkable example, but the Australian election cycle is significantly shorter, terms last slightly less than three years there normally, so Merkel will have been in office for six months longer than Howard was in total when she attempts to match his four straight victories. Felipe Gonzalez won four terms in Spain, but his Socialist Party’s lengthy spell in government can be seen as a reaction to the end of the Franco era and aided by the relative youth of Spanish democracy. FDR and Merkel’s compatriot and former political mentor Helmut Kohl both won four victories as well under four year election cycles, but FDR won his last term as a war leader and Kohl had the unique circumstances of German reunification to boost the natural lifecycle of his government. If Merkel does win a fourth term in ‘normal’ peacetime circumstances it will be without real precedent in modern European history, though perhaps the fact two of her terms have been served in government with the SDP in the so-called ‘grand coalition’ has helped upend the natural political pendulum.
Kohl’s own miserable fourth term could also serve as a warning to Merkel that it is usually better to exit the political stage before voters have had enough of you if you want to preserve your reputation. Many have questioned why Merkel is standing again, other than for the obvious desire to remain in power, unlike Thatcher, who also sought to go ‘on and on’ to complete her revolution, Merkel has always lacked a transformative agenda. Her early tax radicalism was naturally tempered by being forced to govern in coalition with the SDP in her first term and Merkel as pragmatist has been the overriding theme of her time in government. Many voters have appreciated the lack of ideology, but to her critics it has been symptomatic of a lack of ambition and vision in government that has potentially long lasting consequences. Yes, she has contained the euro crisis, but she has not attempted to solve it, to embark on fundamental reform of the eurozone to secure its long-term future. Arguably, she leaves any successor with a difficult nettle to grasp.
Some see her desire for a fourth term as linked to her uncharacteristically incautious decision to welcome in hundreds of thousands of migrants to Germany two years ago. Having declared that Germany was a welcome home to these newcomers, she is now determined to oversee the success of the policy of integration of so many people at once into German society. To her critics on the right this is Merkel attempting to create a legacy for herself at odds with her slightly cold and too cautious image. All leaders become obsessed with their place in history as their time in power nears its end, and it would be entirely understandable if Merkel is attempting to leave a legacy of humanitarian compassion in addition to her reputation of competent if unexciting steering of the ship.
There is little doubt that if Merkel does lose this autumn it would be a seismic shock to the European political system in keeping with the surprise result of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s victory in America. Yet, just as Hillary Clinton winning a third term for the Democrats would have been an upset of recent political history, so Merkel winning a fourth term would defy the normal laws of political gravity.