The hashtag #dankemerkel became popular after 2015, when many Germans started to blame Chancellor Angela Merkel for not closing the borders and shoot at civilians but, instead, providing relief for those who formed the largest stream of immigrants Europe has seen since World War 2. "Wir schaffen das!", her version of Obama's "Yes, we can!", has probably reflected her (and certainly my) perception of Germany as a liberal and open country. A country that can lead by example, a country that is so rich and economically so strong that the temporary accomodation of 2 million refugees is no serious threat.
Now, November 2018, things have changed. Right wing populists have gained power everywhere in Europe and the US. Humanity and common sense have been replaced by populism and shit storms. And Angie has announced not to lead the Christ Democrats after December, and to leave politics after the next general election. What does this mean for Germany, Europe, and the world?
Merkel's Rise and the Decline of the Social Democrats
Before Merkel came into power the Social Democrats under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder implemented a range of market oriented policies (Agenda 2010) that were unpopular among large parts of their basis. This caused a new inititiative to rise on the left, WASG, which eventually formed, together with PDS, Germany's largest socialist party "Die Linke". In the election of 2005 the social democrats lost large parts of their left wing voters to PDS and WASG and Merkel came into power.
Merkel's agenda since 2005 was very progressive for a conservative party. Although it might be questionable to what extent she initiated changes and to what extent she simply followed the popular opinion: while she was in office the end of nuclear power generation in Germany was declared, environmental laws were sharpened, gay marriage was legalized, and millions of refugees were allowed to enter the country. Basically, she did everthing a social democrat chancellor would have done. So, social democrats lost voters on both ends: left wing members joint the socialists, right wing members supported Merkel. Their leaders have become hopelessly disoriented and it is hard to believe that any of the current board members will be able to unite the party, sharpen its profile and challenge Merkel's successors.
History Repeats Itself
Since 2015 things have changed. Not for the social democrats, but for the conservatives. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), initially a liberal party with strong economic opinions, has turned into a melting pot for a large range of Germany's population: those who think that the Christ Democrats are not conservative enough, those who expect the European Union to fail, those who see in refugees a threat to their own culture, and those who finally feel encouraged to publically engage in racisms and antisemitism. And suddently the Crist Democrats are in the same situation the Social Democrats were 10 years ago: their right wing voters sympathize with one or more of the afforementioned groups, their left wing voters fear that the party will turn back into the council of old white males it has been for decades.
It seems, however, that they have not realized this threat quite yet. Conservative politicians and journalists seem to dream that the Christ democrats will find "back to their old strength". But it is an illustion that turning backwards will actually help them regaining those votes they have lost to the AfD. It did not work for the Social Democrats when they turned left after 2007, it won't work for the Christ Democrats to turn right now.
Who Will Profit from Merkel's Decision
Populists across Europe have been celebrating Merkel's announcement. And they have reason to do so. In a world that has become louder, nastier, and where populists can openly engage in racism and antisemitism Merkel has been the rock of those who believed in a better world. While right wing populists often look like little children who start crying in a supermarket when they don't get their favorite candy, she made the impression of a mother who would explain: "Sometimes you have to let them cry." When she leaves, there will be more candy for the kids. But the kids won't behave better.
Right wing populists will not be weakened after her retirement, at least in Germany it will hardly be possible for the Christ Democrats to get voters back from the right. The question is whether or not the Social Democrats will be able to sharpen their profile and get back voters from the Christ Democrats. Their chances are not bad and will largely depend on who will succeed Merkel as party leader. She has brought some supporters to Berlin during the last two years who could continue in her spirit. But the internal opposition is strong and it is not clear at all whether she will be able to place her favorite candidate in office.