During the darkest days of Donald Trump’s presidency, Angela Merkel looked like the last adult on the world stage. With the United States led by an extremist, the United Kingdom in chaos, India barreling toward autocracy, and Russia and China ever more repressive, the German chancellor was widely hailed as the “leader of the free world.”
Now that Merkel is about to step down from the post she has held for the past 16 years—when she took over, her international peers were George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, and Silvio Berlusconi—her heroic image is making international observers anxious about what might come next. Will Germany Trumpify after she retires? And will the country’s role as a defender of democracy on the international stage become a thing of the past?
These questions rest on faulty premises. Though Merkel deserves plaudits for being a steady and humane leader, she was never the last bulwark between decency and barbarism; even after she leaves office, Germany is likely to be ruled by a moderate. And though Merkel does indeed care about democratic values and human rights, she did precious little to defend them while in office; under her successor, Germany is likely to continue combining high-minded talk with a lack of follow-through and a concerning willingness to enter into rotten deals with autocrats.
Merkel’s departure from office feels like a historic caesura. But both for good and for ill, her country will change little after she is gone.
Social scientists like to use statistical modeling to think about the probability of a particular outcome: How often does something happen if you put some basic parameters into a simplified model of the world and run it over and over again? If somebody had done this to predict the likelihood of Merkel ever becoming chancellor of Germany, the answer would, at best, be one out of a million.
Merkel—a Protestant woman from Communist East Germany—was a triple outsider in her party, the heavily West German, Catholic, and male Christian Democratic Union. Like many German politicians, she lacks both charisma and the gift of gab, preferring brisk and sober declarations to long speeches or rhetorical flights of fancy. Even after her mentor, Helmut Kohl, appointed her minister for women and families, he publicly dismissed her as mein Mädchen, or “my little girl.”
But Merkel’s outsider status turned into an advantage when a financial scandal implicated several of the party’s senior leaders in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even with most major Christian Democrats under a pall of suspicion, the public could easily believe that Kohl’s “little girl” would not have known about the dirty dealings of the old boys who really ran things. With a determination and cold-bloodedness that took her colleagues by surprise—and served as a first indication of just how much everyone was underestimating her—Merkel denounced her longtime mentor and elbowed her way to the top of the party.
After winning a close election and cobbling together a governing majority, Merkel quickly developed her trademark style. With little ambition to set the political agenda, she waited out the big debates of her time until it seemed clear which way the wind was blowing. Admirably devoid of an ambition to dominate the airwaves, she kept her public presence to a minimum. Unusually for a politician who has, by traditional metrics, dominated her country’s politics for so long, she remained in the background to such an extent that voters never had an opportunity to grow sick of her.
All of this helps explain Merkel’s political strengths. Having grown up in a dictatorship, she could speak to the importance of liberty and democracy with deep conviction. As an outsider, she had real compassion for the disadvantaged. And as an instinctive moderate, she was rarely tempted to play to her party’s conservative base with angry barbs about immigrants or refugees.
But some of those same traits also help explain Merkel’s political weaknesses. Measured by her words, she was an admirable leader. Measured by her actions, her record is at best uneven. Under her leadership, Germany failed to rise to its three biggest challenges over the past two decades.
The first came after the Great Recession began, when countries in Southern Europe went into a dangerous debt spiral. A decisive leader would have offered them a generous bailout or, alternatively, pushed them out of the single-currency zone altogether. Instead the European Union, under Merkel’s leadership, muddled through for a deeply destructive decade. In the end, the EU avoided the worst-case scenario of a country crashing out of the euro zone. But the social price for that apparent success was far higher than necessary, and with structural problems still unsolved, the next economic downturn may well prompt a rerun of the same tragedy.
The second big challenge came with the rise of authoritarian populists in large parts of Central Europe. When Viktor Orbán was first elected, the EU could have imposed real sanctions on Hungary to halt the country’s backslide toward autocracy. Instead, Merkel opposed meaningful steps to hold Orbán accountable and allowed his party to remain a member of the Christian Democratic faction in the European Parliament. Now Hungary is no longer a free country and other far-right leaders have emulated Orbán’s model. As a result, autocrats are able to protect one another by vetoing any sanctions that Brussels might seek to impose on them. Institutionally incapable of reining in the budding dictators in its midst, the EU is no longer a club of democracies.
The third big challenge came when the civil war in Syria led millions of people to seek refuge in Europe. Merkel’s words of welcome, and her initial refusal to close Germany’s border, won her admirers around the world. But she was never the principled defender of an unlimited right to asylum that the international media celebrated. Her decision to keep the border open had as much to do with her trademark hesitation and the country’s bureaucratic dysfunction as it did with a steadfast commitment to human rights. And though Merkel kept refusing to say that she would eventually stem the tide of refugees—a reluctance that greatly contributed to the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany as a permanent fixture in the country’s politics—she actually did what she could to keep them out. Thanks to a series of deals with autocrats such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Germany outsourced the dirty work of making its borders impenetrable, so though it formally continues to accept refugees, the majority of them now find the country impossible to reach.
Three candidates are vying to succeed Angela Merkel and, with election day fast approaching, the race between them remains wide open.
On paper, there are big differences between the three. Armin Laschet, a mild-mannered Catholic from the Rhineland, is a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Olaf Scholz, a soft-spoken former mayor of Hamburg, leads its historical rivals from the Social Democratic Party. And Annalena Baerbock, a young legislator from Hannover, heads the Green Party, which was formed as a countercultural movement in the 1980s.
But despite the evident differences in their ages, their biographies, and their ideological origins, all three are effectively positioning themselves as forces of continuity. All three are socially liberal without being “woke.” All three believe in a strong welfare state but promise to be fiscally responsible. And all three defend NATO and regard the United States as a close ally, but are unwilling to spend enough money on the German military to make the country a serious global player.
The result is an election campaign that has been simultaneously topsy-turvy and strangely boring. Though voters have little idea of who will be the next chancellor, or what kind of coalition government they will cobble together, most seem to agree that it won’t make much difference anyway.
For now, it looks as though the Social Democratic Party, whose election results kept worsening in recent decades and whose death has been prognosticated countless times, may come out on top. From the beginning of the campaign, Scholz—a politician who stands in the center-left tradition of Bill Clinton, but has the charisma of Mitch McConnell—bet on the idea that voters would warm to his calm competence. As Laschet and Baerbock go from unforced error to unforced error, this widely mocked strategy is somehow coming to fruition.
At the beginning of the campaign, polls projected the Social Democratic Party finishing a distant third behind the Greens and the Christian Democrats. Now it has surged ahead of both. And though PredictIt, an online betting platform, gave Scholz a one-in-20 chance of replacing Merkel as recently as the beginning of August, he has since become the odds-on favorite.
The good news about this German election is that it won’t change the country very much. Whether the next chancellor is Annalena Baerbock, Armin Laschet, or Olaf Scholz, Germany will, for the foreseeable future, remain a stable and tolerant democracy. None of the three have the character or the desire to emulate the authoritarian populists who have been ascendant in so many countries over the past years. Meanwhile, the far-right Alternative for Germany, which took a record share of the vote four years ago, is likely to lose support this time around.
The bad news about this German election is the same: It won’t change the country very much. Under Merkel, Germany has been less of a beacon for democracy or human rights than most international observers believed. The country deepened its economic ties with China, pressed ahead with a gas pipeline that was important to the Kremlin, empowered budding autocrats in Poland and Hungary, and struck immoral deals with dictators in Turkey and elsewhere. The same hypocrisy is likely to characterize Germany’s foreign policy once Merkel is gone.
Those who care about democracy and human rights have little reason to worry about Germany. But they also don’t have much reason to invest big hopes in its leaders, past, present, or future.