October 29, 2018 / 12:49 PM / in 21 days

Breakingviews - Angela Merkel exit to polarise Germany and Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU), waves, August 16, 2017. REUTERS/Wolfgang Ratay

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Angela Merkel has called time on her own tenure. The politician who has been Germany’s chancellor for 13 years has decided to not seek re-election as chairwoman of her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU). While she nevertheless wants to serve her full term as chancellor until 2021, her country and the rest of Europe will inevitably start looking ahead to what could be a more polarising era.

The announcement of Merkel’s decision to give up the CDU chair came on Monday, a day after a regional election in the western state of Hesse saw support for the conservatives slump by 11 percentage points. Nor was that an aberration. The Christian Democrats’ sister party, the CSU, two weeks ago suffered its worst result in Bavaria since 1950. Some traditional supporters of the two parties were angered by Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome one million mainly Muslim asylum seekers. The need to win back such voters may tempt the next chair of the CDU to push the party to the right.

But that will be hard to square with the demands of Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) who are also being punished by voters. The SPD’s share of the Hesse vote fell to roughly a fifth, the worst result in the state since 1946, and the party is under pressure to show supporters it is achieving tangible results by staying in government. If the CDU tacks to the right, and the SPD pulls the other way, the current coalition will fall apart sooner rather than later. A minority government or an alliance with the liberal Free Democrats, who walked away from coalition talks last year, could then be on the cards.

There will also be consequences for the rest of Europe if the CDU lists to the right. A lame-duck Merkel – or her successor – may be less tolerant of countries, such as Italy, who flout the European Union’s budget rules. All the more so if the CDU is trying to win back its traditional supporters, who typically favour fiscal discipline. Merkel may be remembered for her ability to forge consensus and act for the greater good. Domestic political pressure means her successor is unlikely to have that luxury.

Breakingviews

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