“Merkel is an endlessly fascinating person. She’s very different from other European leaders, she reacts in different ways,” says Patricia Hogwood, a political scientist and Germany-watcher recently retired from Westminster University.
“She has been galvanised by this crisis. Her energies have been redirected. She hasn’t been daunted as some other leaders have.”
Oxford University politics lecturer Matthias Dilling calls her “a good crisis manager”. “The leadership style that she has been criticised for – not necessarily charismatic, not giving a big speech every week – has served her well in this situation.”
In a decade and a half, Merkel oversaw an economy that expanded every single year bar 2009. Exports soared, unemployment fell, the budget was balanced.
Perhaps her reformist impulse wasn’t especially powerful, so growth was stable rather than spectacular. Still, it’s now common to see it referred to as “a golden era”.
It gave Germany the confidence to bury some of its historic Nazi guilt and play a more active, outspoken role in Europe and the world – on the eurozone crisis, on Iran, and on Russian aggression. Germans even allowed themselves the luxury of a modest degree of patriotism.
Her biggest challenge came in 2015, in her unpopular decision to open the door for up to a million asylum seekers from the Syrian conflict. But she has weathered the populist-led backlash.
The past few weeks have looked a little like Merkel’s swansong. Overcoming a noticeably tepid relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron, she bulldozed a €750 billion ($1.2 trillion) European Union recovery plan through a fractious four-day meeting of the bloc’s 27 leaders.
She’s also doused a potential challenge, initiated by her own country’s constitutional court, to the independence of the European Central Bank and the supremacy of European over German law.
Not having to stand for re-election means she is free to focus on keeping the grand European project off the ropes – something that doesn’t always come instinctively to the German political class, nor earn the gratitude of German voters.
And she can also quietly try to ensure that her brand of steady-as-she-goes centrism is cemented as the foundation of German politics, heading off the simmering far-right threat and also the challenge from more zealous socialists and free-marketeers.
Most politicians heading into the end of their tenure start thinking about a legacy. But maybe not Merkel.
“I don’t think she’s self-indulgent or foolish enough to imagine she can preserve her legacy in detailed policy. She wants to pass on a good society, that’s her aim,” Hogwood says.
“She will work to try and neutralise other political narratives, she wants a narrative that’s liberal, a rule-of-law based society.”
That would mean Germany continuing as the reluctant but consistent liberal-multinationalist counterweight to Trump’s nativist nationalism and the authoritarianism emanating from Moscow and Beijing.
Domestically, it would steer Germany away from populism and from the more Thatcherite inclinations of some of those hoping to replace her.
But to achieve this, she has to find a successor to carry those values forward. And that’s easier said than done.
Merkel suffered a major setback in February when her heir-apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stepped down as leader of their party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), after struggling to establish herself as a convincing chancellor-in-waiting.
That threw open the race to succeed Merkel – assuming the CDU retains its commanding opinion poll lead – a contest that has been lengthened and complicated by the COVID-19 crisis and the incumbent’s surging popularity.
None of the contenders really has been able to shine. They’re completely overshadowed by Merkel and they’re really struggling.
— Rudi Wurzel, University of Hull
“She’s leaning back and enjoying the support, and none of the contenders really has been able to shine. They’re completely overshadowed by Merkel and they’re really struggling,” says Rudi Wurzel, a professor of European politics at Hull University.
The CDU leadership vote was supposed to take place in April, giving the victor a year to establish himself (all the candidates are male) before the election due in April 2021. But the pandemic postponed that until December.
That’s not the only way the pandemic has shaken up the contest. Some of the contenders are ministers or state premiers, so the coronavirus has tested them and shifted public perceptions of their capabilities. Those without a current political role have been rendered almost invisible.
The hot favourite, and also a Merkel protégé, was Armin Laschet, premier of the western industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia. So impeccable was his party pedigree that another potential contender and rising star, Health Minister Jens Spahn, threw in his lot with Laschet and is running on a de facto joint ticket to be his deputy.
But Laschet is widely seen to have had a poor crisis, misjudging the public mood and dithering over lockdown. The recent high-profile shutdown in Gütersloh, following a big coronavirus outbreak at an abattoir, was on his watch.
That’s prompted some calls for Spahn, who is only 40 and has appeared fluent and competent during the crisis, to pull out of his tie-up with Laschet and contest the ballot under the banner of generational change.
Friedrich Merz, 65, flies the alternative banner of ideological change, touting a more Anglo-Saxon blend of free-market liberalism and social conservatism.
He left politics more than a decade ago for a lucrative career in the country’s boardrooms. But he’s back, hoping to unpick Merkel’s legacy. So far, he’s struggled to gain traction during the all-absorbing pandemic.
The electorate seems unconvinced, opening up a new possibility: that the winner of the CDU party leadership election might not become chancellor.
The CDU has a sister party in the populous state of Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and its leader is Bavarian Premier Markus Söder, 53, a former academic and journalist with a penchant for publicity.
He hasn’t kept a lid on COVID-19 in his state, but he’s been decisive and articulate. More than 60 per cent of Germans see him as a potential chancellor – double his rating in March, and also double that of Merz, his nearest rival on that metric.
“Söder has phenomenal ratings support, including across the rest of the Germany. He’s the second most popular politician behind Merkel and has used this crisis really well from his perspective,” says Wurzel.
“He still maintains he doesn’t want to become chancellor, but I think he’d consider it if he thought he had a realistic chance.”
Söder is untested on foreign policy, which occupies much of a chancellor’s time, and his parochialism could yet handicap him.
In his favour, Wurzel says the CSU is more of a law-and-order, pro-market party than the CDU – which could be weaponised against the populist insurgents, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
All European countries are negotiating the rise of anti-immigration, anti-globalisation populist parties, but in Germany it’s particularly fraught: the AfD has a tendency to shade into the neo-Nazi fringes, raising a Pavlovian shudder of aversion.
The AfD rates well in its heartlands, but is riven by factionalism between its standard-issue populists and its more extreme elements. Right now this conflict is coming to a particularly nasty head.
“The biggest threat to the AfD is the AfD itself. Factionalism and internal conflicts could lead to disintegration of the party, but it hasn’t happened so far,” says Dilling.
In this parliament, the CDU/CSU has had to govern in a “grand coalition” with the left-wing Social Democrats (SPD), who were once the country’s main opposition force. This reinforces Merkel’s natural centrist, middle-way instincts.
But her party is in the box seat for next April’s election. It is polling around 38 per cent, against 14 per cent for the SPD, 16 to 20 per cent for the Greens, up to 11 per cent for the AfD, and about 6 to 8 per cent each for the free-market FDP and the hard-left Linke.
This means Merkel’s successor could have a pretty free hand to set Germany’s political direction and geopolitical orientation. After 15 years of Merkel, it’s hard to imagine what that might look like; but the experts aren’t expecting radical change.
Wurzel says Germany is built to resist strong shifts in the political current. “The system really pulls things to the centre. That’s what the system was built for, to avoid the Weimar Republic type of confrontation, of a completely splintered party system where no compromise is possible,” he says.
And Dilling says it could be the style, rather than substance, of leadership that changes. “Some leadership traits only develop once you’re in office. But I’m not expecting a major departure from the more centrist course.”