German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political apathy has caused the German government to fall into Trump-like populism.
Recent electoral losses for her coalition over this past month in Hesse and Bavaria have caused Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany for 13 years, to step down in 2021 and resign as party leader next month. The move surprises no one in Europe, considering the decline in popularity of the reigning coalition, which is currently composed of an alliance between the Social Democratic Party (SPD; the center left party) and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU; the center right party).
German politics centers around a parliamentary system, which differs greatly from the American republican structure. Political power in U.S. government is divided between executive, legislative and judicial branches. However, in parliamentary systems, the executive derives itself from legislative alliance building. This occurs because parliamentary politics naturally encourages multiple parties rather than rule by two parties.
The Left, while enveloped entirely by the Democratic Party in the United States, is divided in Germany between multiple factions that compete for power, such as the Far Left Party, the Green and the SPD. The Right is composed of the Federal Democratic Party (the pro-business party), Alternative for Deutschland (the far-right/new Nazi party) and the CDU. These factions gain ground in local, state and federal elections, and they build coalitions to gain a majority in their respective governmental bodies. Merkel’s CDU and her current ally the SPD have lost ground across Germany to the two populist parties, the Greens and the AFD, and this trend will likely continue in next month’s round of regional elections.
Merkel stepping down from power spells disaster for moderates across Europe. Critics and supporters alike label her as a “Machiavellian” who lacks a clear vision for both Germany and Europe except for the retention of her power. This has kept Merkel at the top of the European political order but at great cost to Germany’s domestic politics. Populists on the Left and Right have gained traction among disillusioned and abandoned voters from Merkel’s policies. Merkel is entirely responsible for the chaotic state of Germany because she attempted to embody an impartial, moderate stateswoman in an increasingly fractured Europe.
Whether one subscribes to the idea that Donald Trump’s presidency marks an irreversible shift in America’s leadership of the West or merely an inconvenient blip, Merkel always chose to defer to American primacy when she had the option to take the initiative. Her refusal to build a united Europe has allowed her French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, to enthusiastically take that mantle. Her leadership in the Greek bailout, while morally heroic, led to the rebirth of Germany’s worst nature in the Alternative for Deutschland party.
The new face of the CDU, whether it is Merkel’s resurrected rival Friedrich Merz, the young reactionary Jens Spahn or her chosen successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, will wade through the bloodiest party struggle since the unification of Germany. The worst-case scenario is that the CDU-SPD coalition collapses from the internal strife within the center-right party post-Merkel and forces elections that grant further seats to the Green and AFD parties in the Bundestag.
The lesson that Germany, and the West generally, should glean from Merkel’s legacy is that apathy cannot serve as a viable political ideology. Complacency on behalf of our leaders, especially for the sake of power, galvanizes the worst of us into manifesting our fears into political action. The Greens and the AFD, if they continue to rack up support, might signal a Trump-like shift in German politics as populism becomes the norm. With Europe poised to wrest the title of Leaders of the Free World away from America in the post-Trump West, the aftershocks of Merkel’s tenure could have sabotaged democracy’s survival. Most crucially, if we have learned anything from Germany succumbing to populism, it is that the shift in power can lead to global catastrophe.