Hit by a string of crises, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative union now faces two likely regional poll debacles, in Bavaria on Sunday and in Hesse two weeks later, further rocking her fragile coalition.
Only days ago she implored her centre-right CDU’s lawmakers to support their allies of the more conservative CSU sister party in Bavaria, saying it was time «to face the voters rather than snipe away at each other».
The veteran chancellor has had a bumpy ride since the September 2017 general election was heavily impacted by her decision two years earlier to allow an influx of more than one million refugees and migrants.
A xenophobic backlash drove the rise of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, complicating Merkel’s efforts to forge a coalition, which took a painful six months.
Finally, the biggest election losers, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), reluctantly came on board, but Merkel soon faced fire from another quarter — her erstwhile ally, the CSU Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.
Seeking to match the AfD’s tough line on immigration, he twice brought their coalition to the brink of collapse.
But polls suggest his brinkmanship has only hurt the CSU, which is now polling at historic lows of 33-35 percent and looks set to lose its absolute majority, as voters have fled either to the AfD or to the Greens.
The surveys suggest that, at a time when the big mainstream parties are under fire in many western democracies, the wealthy Alpine state of Bavaria too faces a political earthquake.
— Warning shot —
In the election in the central state of Hesse on October 28, Merkel’s party is doing no better in the opinion polls, and CDU state premier Volker Bouffier faces the threat of defeat.
Both regional elections will likely force acrobatic efforts to forge new stable coalition governments and could revive discontent against Merkel.
A debate has simmered about the succession to Merkel, whose centrist, pragmatic and compromise-seeking governing style has kept her in power since 2005, and whose fourth term runs until 2021.
Despite Merkel’s past successes, «there can be no doubt that a change of method is needed,» influential CDU lawmaker Norbert Roettgen told news weekly Der Spiegel, adding there is «a desire for change» in the party.
Weeks ago, CDU/CSU lawmakers fired a first warning shot when, in a surprise vote, they kicked out Merkel’s long-time confidant Volker Kauder as their parliamentary leader and replaced him with a relative unknown, Ralph Brinkhaus.
The chancellor herself will soon face her own party vote when she runs again to head the CDU at a December congress, a meeting that Roettgen predicted «will be decisive».
— Twilight period —
Merkel’s situation is all the more complicated because, in addition to the grumbling in her own ranks, her dispirited junior coalition allies the SPD are still plagued by doubts about staying in government.
Many SPD rebels have strongly campaigned for the party to head into opposition to be able to speak its mind and regain its fighting spirit.
With the party now polling below 20 percent nationally, the looming setbacks in Bavaria and Hesse are unlikely to improve the mood.
Veteran CDU lawmaker and parliamentary speaker Wolfgang Schaeuble has mused openly about the SPD jumping ship, in an interview with newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
«If the SPD decides at some stage that it just can’t go on, then it won’t be the end of the world,» he said, voicing confidence that the CDU could run a stable minority government.
As the AfD and the Greens are gaining at the expense of the mainstream parties, new state-level alliances such as a possible CSU-Greens coalition in Bavaria could point to future pacts at national level.
«We are in the twilight period of Merkel’s rule in Germany,» said Sudha David-Wilp of think-tank the German Marshall Fund.
«And the CDU/CSU will have to think about what kind of coalition they’d like to form if they want to stay in power when the next federal election comes around.»