But while she survived all those battles on the surface, each dealt a blow to her image as the country’s beacon of stability and, perhaps more importantly, to her standing within her party. “It’s quite clear that the election last September was a turning point,” Jan Techau, who heads the German Marshall Fund’s Europe project, said in an interview. “Since then, she’s been under tremendous pressure to give some sort of indication as to how long this can last.”
Read: ‘Germany is becoming more normal.’
The signs of the German leader’s waning influence within her own party have been evident for months: Perhaps the clearest one came in September, when Volker Kauder was voted down as the party’s parliamentary group leader despite an explicit plea from Merkel on his behalf.
Though the incident ran largely under the radar in the international press, it was a clear sign to those watching within Germany that opposition to Merkel in the CDU had reached new levels. Kauder had held the position for as long as Merkel had been chancellor.
“The critics that have been dissatisfied with Merkel and with the orientation of the party for a long time … have become louder, there is no doubt about that,” said Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at the German polling institute Forsa.
Ever since her 2015 decision to allow more than a million refugees to enter Germany, she has earned herself plenty of critics and enemies within her own party, many of whom say her policies have helped bring about the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany. Previously, that manifested mostly in internal grumbling or pointed comments. In recent months, the anti-Merkel contingent shifted toward outright public defiance.
When Horst Seehofer, the interior minister, challenged Merkel with his plans for stricter migration measures and threatened to pull his Christian Social Union out of the government, his remarks underscored how emboldened Merkel’s critics had become: That Seehofer felt he could challenge Merkel so openly was an indication that she no longer held absolute sway over her party.
Though the chancellor said Monday that she had made her decision to step back over the summer, it’s clear that results from two state elections—Bavaria two weeks ago and Hesse on Sunday—sped up the announcement. In Bavaria, the long-dominant CSU, a sister party to Merkel’s, sustained historic losses, giving up its absolute majority for the first time in decades.
Read: The far right isn’t the only rising force in Germany.
Hesse was the final straw: The state-level election there very clearly became a referendum on the performance of Merkel’s government in Berlin, and both the CDU and the center-left SPD posted significant losses as a result. Despite Merkel’s personal involvement in the campaign—she stumped with Hesse Premier Volker Bouffier across the state multiple times—her party dropped more than 10 percentage points in the past five years. Merkel nodded to the Hesse results in her remarks Monday, saying the party’s support there was “disappointing and bitter” and a “clear signal that things can’t go on as they are.”