Angela Merkel will now sit back and wait for a bit. She'll let emotions settle and wait for people to stop talking so much about the AfD. And she'll use the time to re-evaluate her priorities. Such has been her reaction to every crisis she has faced thus far – and Sunday's election results qualify at least as a midsized crisis, one that will mark the rest of her tenure. She will be in office for at least the next four years, if you can believe the promises she made on the campaign trail. When she was asked in July if she would remain in the Chancellery for the full four-year term if she was re-elected, she launched into one of her standard labyrinthine responses, speaking of the limited "power of disposition" we have over our lives. But then she said "yes," adding that it is an element of the trust people place in her. That is what she told the voters.
In the last few years, Merkel has developed a penchant for the pastoral, which has removed her ever further from the realities of day-to-day politics. That could now prove to be problematic for her grip on power. German chancellors must expend significant amounts of energy to keep their governing coalitions from disintegrating. In a system that depends on unceasing forward momentum, there is no room for a "lame duck" whose political sell-by date is known to all. Ever since Germany's first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, the country's leaders have stayed in office until they are pushed out, either through losing an election or the collapse of their government.
Helmut Kohl once tried to take a different approach. But when he hinted during the 1994 campaign that he might step down as chancellor after two years, his public opinion ratings immediately plunged. His coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats, growing stale after 12 uninterrupted years in government, just barely managed to eke out a victory that year. After that, the chancellor never again spoke of resigning, instead clinging ever more self-righteously to power as had Adenauer and Helmut Schmidt before him. Kohl was obsessed by the idea that someone might launch a putsch against him. He uncompromisingly held back all those seen as his most likely successors – and there were actually a few among the Christian Democrats (CDU) of that era: Wolfgang Schäuble, the young Volker Rühe, "Professor" Kurt Biedenkopf. Kohl was the personification of the country's reform backlog: For four years, he blockaded both his country and his party before sliding to an election loss in 1998, consumed by bitterness. Then came the party donation scandal, in which he allegedly browbeat his former "crown prince" Schäuble into line. At the very least, he ensured that Schäuble's stint as CDU chairman would be a short one.
Everything Is Possible, Except Replacing Merkel
Angela Merkel took advantage of the palace intrigue to launch her ascent. It is difficult to imagine something similar happening to her today. If her downfall turns into a protracted one, then it won't be because she is keeping down her potential successors. We simply can't imagine the existence of such potential successors anymore. That has a lot to do with Merkel's special qualities as a practitioner of power politics, but also with Germany's self-imposed limits on political imagination, something that can already be identified as a key characteristic of the Merkel era.
Germany now has a parliament that includes seven parties and six parliamentary groups, including one whose affinity for racial ideals, to put it mildly, hasn't yet been completely determined. The distance between the center-right CDU and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) is larger than it has been since the 1950s, yet Merkel's conservatives just had their worst election results since 1949. It is a spectacular turning point for the country, but even shortly after the polls closed at 6 p.m. on Sunday, all pundits seemed to agree that Merkel would nevertheless be able to assemble a stable coalition government – this time with three parties, an historical precedent. There is, it seems, a broad consensus that there is no political discipline that Merkel, with her infinite grasp of policy obscura, cannot master.