The German politicians who were once larger-than-life figures, dominating their political parties as easily as they dominated Germany’s political discourse, are fast becoming dinosaurs.
First it was Martin Schulz, who resigned as chairman of the Social Democratic Party in February after some backbenchers opposed the party’s decision to enter into another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. That coalition deal was the product of a particularly humiliating loss for the SPD in the 2017 German federal elections, where it barely scrounged 20 per cent of the vote. Then it was Merkel, the dominant force of German politics for over a decade, who decided to give up the leadership of the CDU after her party’s dismal showing in the Hesse regional elections. And now it’s Christian Social Union head Horst Seehofer’s turn, a month after his Bavarian-based party lost supporters in a region it had dominated since the second world war.
Seehofer’s political future was likely sealed after the CSU lost its absolute majority last month in Bavaria. The abrasive, controversial interior minister has caused consternation in Berlin with his constant nipping at Merkel’s heels on immigration, asylum policy, and the disgraced intelligence chief Hans-Georg Maassen, whom critics claim was canoodling with far-right extremists. Seehofer’s tough-on-immigration platform nearly collapsed the coalition government months after it was set up – an act of political desperation to keep immigration hawks in the CSU from bolting to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Bavaria’s election contest. The plan backfired spectacularly; the AfD reached double digits in Bavaria, and German voters fed up with the division in Berlin used the episode as justification for voting against the main parties.
Seehofer’s resignation as CSU party chair is but one more domino falling. Germany is changing before our eyes, with establishment politicians giving up positions of power to make way for newer voices and fresher faces – often doing so quicker than they might have liked. German voters are sending the establishment a message: move out of the way before you lose even more influence in the Bundestag.
The traditional parties which have for decades traded the chancellery between them are now hemorrhaging support to smaller ones like the Greens, who have all but overtaken the SPD as the main opposition force on the left. German politics no longer seems as exciting as watching paint dry.
Merkel has already announced her retirement. By 2021, Germany’s political giant and the most powerful leader in Europe will step off the stage. There will be a fight among the next generation of leaders for a prominent spot in the post-Merkel era. Indeed, in the CDU, that fight is already well underway. The first order of business for whomever comes out on top: plugging the hole and stopping any further damage. If future party officials of the CDU, CSU, and SPD don’t move quickly in a comprehensive effort to improve their reputations, regain the trust of the voters, and convince them that Germany’s major parties aren’t stewards of defective governance, each of them will be treading perilous waters.