Angela Merkel finally took action to stem the growing panic within her coalition government yesterday when she announced she would step down as leader of her Christian Democrat party (CDU) in December.
Ms Merkel also announced she would stand down as chancellor – but not until 2021, when her current term end.
“I was not born chancellor,” Ms Merkel said as she announced her decision. By stepping down as party leader in two months, she is attempting to extend her time in power and leave on her own terms, by quieting the growing rebellion within her party.
But she may not get to choose the date of her departure. The CDU will expect to fight the next elections under her successor as leader – and there is no guarantee her fragile coalition government will last until 2021.
Ms Merkel made the announcement she was stepping down as party leader after 18 years in characteristically understated style at a meeting of her MPs to discuss the results of regional elections.
It was the results of those elections that forced her hand, after the party suffered its worst result since 1966 in the key state of Hesse. In the end, it was not her migrant policy that undid Ms Merkel, as so many predicted it would – she lost more votes to the Greens, the most pro-migrant party in the country, than to the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Instead it was the months of infighting that seemed to leave her coalition government powerless to do anything that drove voters away, according to opinion polls.
Ms Merkel said only last week that all attempts by political leaders to manage their succession fail, but she is clearly attempting to do just that by remaining in power while a new leader takes over the party.
It is a path fraught with peril. Ms Merkel herself accused Gerhard Schröder, her predecessor as chancellor, of making a fatal error when he tried the same gambit in 2004.
The CDU may not vote for the candidate of Ms Merkel’s choice, and she could find herself at loggerheads with a hostile party leader. And the move may embolden her critics within the party to topple her as chancellor as well.
Although Ms Merkel insists she will not interfere when the CDU chooses a new leader, it is an open secret she wants Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party chairman, to succeed her.
Cut from the same political cloth as Ms Merkel – she is popularly known as “mini-Merkel” – she will start the race as favourite. But she is by no means a shoo-in.
Friedrich Merz, the favourite of the CDU business wing, declared his candidacy minutes after Ms Merkel announced she was standing down. An old rival, he could prove difficult for her to do business with if elected.
So could Jens Spahn, the health minister and darling of the party’s right-wing, who has been an outspoken critic of Ms Merkel.
Other possible candidates include Armin Laschet, the powerful prime minister of Germany’s biggest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Daniel Günther, a rising star and premier of Schleswig-Holstein – both of whom are seen as closer to Ms Merkel.
But her problems will not be limited to her party’s choice of new leader. Once she has stepped down, her time as chancellor will be limited until the next elections and there is a strong possibility they could come sooner rather than later.
Her coalition government is visibly crumbling. Andrea Nahles, the leader of her main coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), is facing growing calls to pull the party out of the government after it suffered even worse regional election results than the CDU.
However the SPD stands to lose up to a third of its seats in early elections and its MPs are unlikely to opt for their own demise.
But there is another threat to the chancellor. The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who walked out of coalition talks last year, said they would be prepared to consider serving under a new CDU leader.
The possibility of a new coalition including the FDP and the Green Party, who made sweeping gains in the regional elections, may tempt many in Ms Merkel’s party to encourage the chancellor to hasten her departure from the scene.
For most of her career, Ms Merkel has been a political chess grand master, always two moves ahead of her opponents. Yesterday she looked cornered and forced into one last desperate gambit to hold on to power.
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