As the curtain falls on the Merkel era, Germany’s largest parties are set to vie for power


(NEW YORK) — After almost 16 years as leader of Europe’s most powerful economy, Angela Merkel will be leaving the chancellorship behind as Germany votes on a new parliament. Merkel’s successor — either her Christian Democratic Union appointee, Armin Laschet, or Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats — will be determined only once a new government is formed.

Sunday’s general election saw Scholz’s SPD win 25.7% of the vote, closely followed by the conservative CDU at 24.1%, according to official preliminary results released Monday morning. However, they alone don’t have the majority needed to rule and will have to form strategic coalitions that will determine who will govern the country.

It’s historically rare in German politics that the make-up of a leading coalition and identity of the next chancellor is so unclear. Despite Merkel’s popularity, her CDU struggled to galvanize the conservative party’s traditional base under Laschet, the governor of Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia state.

Laschet was gaffe-laden during the campaign, including being caught on camera laughing during a tribute to those who died in the devastating floods in West Germany in July. Even on voting day, Laschet made a blunder by folding his ballot the wrong way — making his voting choice visible, which could make his vote invalid.

Climate change has played a central role during the election race. The environmentalist Greens gained more support than anticipated early on.

It could take weeks — if not months — of negotiations between the parties before a coalition government is fully formed. Dr. Ursula Münch from Germany’s Academy of Political Education predicts the transition period to be drawn out.

“Many in Germany are speculating that Merkel might still have to hold the New Years’ speech,” Münch told ABC News.

One thing is certain: Merkel’s exit will mark the end of an era. In her last few weeks, Germans are reflecting on the legacy that she leaves behind.

“Angela Merkel became chancellor when I was 14 years old,” 30-year-old German citizen Svenja Beck told ABC News. “I can hardly remember anyone other than a woman ever ruling our country. It feels crazy that this era is coming to an end. In any case, I hope she can enjoy her well-deserved retirement, especially after these exhausting 1.5 years.”

Indeed, there’s a sense of nostalgia in some young Germans who have only known a country led by the leader known as “mutti,” or mother.

After three terms as chancellor, Merkel is still a popular figure. Last week a survey by Gallup research recorded her approval rating at 71%.

Many Germans have admired her demeanor — an assuring confidence, a pragmatism — others have been assured by her steady economic policies that have enabled the country to weather several crises. She’s also been valued for her ability to reach consensus across governments and political persuasions.

“Merkel’s personal style has left certain marks,” Münch said. “Her rather restrained, unpretentious and matter-of-fact nature does seem to be popular among a large part of the population.”

Beyond that, Münch considers Merkel’s legacy to be defined by her crisis management and ability to deal with adverse situations “step by step.”

Münch noted that while Merkel may approach potential conflicts with hesitation at first, she’ll quickly and thoroughly deal with them once she’s in the thick of it.

“We saw this with the banking crisis, with the Euro rescue, during the refugee crisis and now in particular with the coronavirus,” she added.

But throughout the years, Merkel has received criticism for being too complacent on certain fronts, with environmentalists being particularly vocal in accusing her of not doing enough to tackle climate change.

German citizen Steffen Mechlinski, who voted for the Greens on Sunday, said he’s looking forward to some issues getting more attention under the new leadership:

“After 16 solid years, I am now hoping for an ambitious policy approach, particularly when it comes to climate change, social justice, education and digitalization,” Mechlinski told ABC News.

Internationally, Merkel has enjoyed widespread popularity.

“She’s considered to be a very dependable person in many parts of the world,” Münch said, “although I’m sure that some eastern European and southeastern European states may not agree.”

However, it’s Merkel’s willingness to involve everyone, including smaller states, in policy debates and decisions that gives her a reputation for fairness and dependability.

Münch doesn’t foresee any dramatic changes to Germany’s foreign policy.

“The CDU and the SPD are really not that different from each other,” she said. “Both are transatlantically oriented parties. Both — including the SPD under Olaf Scholz — keep Russia at a distance and approach China with reservations.”

Even the Greens, who will form part of the new government, won’t dramatically impact the direction of Germany’s foreign policy, particularly when it comes to the United States.

“All three parties are transatlantics,” Münch added. “These are all people and parties who care a lot about German-American relations.”

In her years as chancellor, Merkel has resisted taking a tougher stance on China, with trade between the two countries booming.

Münch doesn’t expect doesn’t anticipate dramatic changes toward China, saying that even the Greens must conduct a business-friendly policy.

“Perhaps, when it comes to China, the priority won’t just be foreign trade,” she said, “but that the approach will be more cautious, especially with regards to human rights policies.”

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