German chancellor Angela Merkel is set to announce she will run for a fourth term in next year’s elections.
“I TAKE a long time, and my decisions come late,” Angela Merkel said on November 20th, as she explained why she was only now confirming what most Germans had long assumed: that she would run for a fourth term as German chancellor in next autumn’s election for the Bundestag. Considered a shoo-in until the summer of 2015, she lost the support of many conservatives last autumn when she opened Germany’s borders to the refugees then streaming into Europe. Crucially, she also fell out with an important domestic ally, Horst Seehofer, the premier of Bavaria, who demands a fixed upper limit to asylum-seekers. But with the refugee crisis waning and her popularity rising again, Mrs Merkel in the end decided that she had no choice but to run again. She lacks an obvious successor in her conservative bloc, and she may be the only one able to protect her 11-year legacy of centrist politics during a time of populist insurgencies.
The election this month of Donald Trump as America’s next president may have tipped the balance in her decision. Suddenly, America’s future role as leader of the liberal post-war order is in doubt. Other Western powers are distracted—Britain by its decision to exit the European Union and France by the threat that Marine Le Pen, a right-wing Eurosceptic, could win the presidency next year. Mrs Merkel appears to be the last remaining world leader of stature to defend the West’s liberal values against the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As though to confirm these hopes of Mrs Merkel, Barack Obama, while visiting Berlin for the last time as America’s president this month, said that if he had a German vote, he would cast it for her.
The chancellor, however, is doing her best to dampen perceptions of her as potential world-saviour. At her press conference to announce her candidacy, she called such notions “grotesque and almost absurd”. The word in Berlin is that she views exaggerated expectations of her as detrimental to her campaign next year. Germany’s populist right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany, which is polling at 13%, is still smaller than its counterparts elsewhere in Europe. But a mantle as defender of cosmopolitan globalism would make her even more of a “lightning rod and provocation” for the populists, says one insider.
Mrs Merkel’s challenges are therefore just as much domestic as international. This month, she suffered a tactical defeat against her junior partners in government, who will also be her arch-rivals in the coming campaign, the Social Democrats. Mrs Merkel had tried to find somebody from her own party, the Christian Democrats, to take Germany’s presidency in February, when the incumbent Joachim Gauck retires. This post is largely ceremonial but freighted with symbolism. Instead, Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the Social Democrats, pushed his party’s candidate, the current foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. To avoid an open fight between the parties, Mrs Merkel gritted her teeth and agreed.
Mr Steinmeier’s move, and Mrs Merkel’s renewed candidacy, now increase the pressure on the Social Democrats to declare their intentions. By default, Mr Gabriel, as party boss, should become the candidate for chancellor. But his support in the party is unstable, and many Social Democrats think that the more outspoken president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, would do better against Mrs Merkel. Mr Schulz is also rumoured as the most likely successor to Mr Steinmeier as foreign minister. But the Social Democrats have to decide their strategy soon or risk being consumed by infighting.
As controversial as Mrs Merkel has become in the refugee crisis, her chances to win a fourth term remain excellent. In the latest poll, her support has risen to 55%, up from 42% in August. More importantly, all recent polls suggest that the only plausible coalition against her—a combination of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the ex-communist The Left—will not win a majority. The odds are that Mrs Merkel will indeed stay in office through 2021, thus beating both Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl to become the longest-serving German chancellor.