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German political shifts leave Merkel's legacy hanging in balance

Angela Merkel speaking and gesturing
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images

The poor fortunes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party in last weekend's EU parliamentary elections present the latest challenge to her hard-earned legacy.

Where it stands: Although Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), are in free fall, her popularity has helped the political center hold in Germany much better than in other EU countries. But now the contagion of populist forces and smaller parties that has overrun establishment parties across Europe is also threatening Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

Details: The SPD's paltry 15.8% of the German vote in EU parliamentary elections on Sunday revealed it to be at an existential crossroads. But the CDU's decline in support offered its own wake-up call.

  • Each party lost roughly a million voters to the Greens, alongside a surge of the populist, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the former East Germany.

Between the lines: The combination of Germany’s strong economy, reduced migration flows, and the recent designation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to succeed Merkel as party leader wasn’t enough to bolster the CDU.

  • The Merkel brand was built on her reputation for stability during a time of rapid change (for 8 years now, Forbes has called her the most powerful woman in the world). But the CDU has overlooked issues that are front of mind for German voters, such as climate change and the impact of emerging technologies.

What to watch: Merkel still enjoys high approval ratings but could further polish her legacy by targeting the young voters who have flocked to the Greens.

  • Action on reducing carbon emissions in Germany and addressing important topics such as broadband and internet platform regulation in Europe’s largest economy would help boost support in that group.
  • Lending a helping hand to her successor Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is still getting used to the national stage, could also help win back voters turned off by the new leader’s political blunders.

The bottom line: The Greens could perhaps usurp the SPD to become the major center left party, but a viable CDU would ensure a role for the center right in the overall political landscape of Germany's parliamentary system — a goal the party still has time to pursue before the imminent post-Merkel era.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior transatlantic fellow and deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office.