BERLIN — Angela Merkel will leave office in the coming months with her popularity intact among voters and widely admired beyond Germany as a chancellor who deftly steered her country, and Europe, through numerous crises.
Her center-right political bloc, on the other hand, is in shambles.
The once-dominant Christian Democratic Union and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, suffered their worst-ever national election result Sunday. The Union bloc took home less than a quarter of the vote and may find itself relegated to the role of opposition after 16 years in power.
The blame for that has been placed largely on her party's uninspiring candidate, Armin Laschet, a state governor whose gaffes and chummy demeanor contrasted with Merkel's image as a calm, professional stateswoman.
But observers say the long-time leader bears at least some responsibility for the dire straits that her party is now in.
“Merkel has focused on governing in recent years and neglected her party work," said Klaus Stuewe, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt.
After stepping down as party leader in 2018, Merkel largely stood back while the Christian Democrats underwent a series of painful leadership contests. The turmoil detracted from its efforts to lay out a coherent party program — which for years was focused largely Merkel's persona — and many voters lost faith in its competence in key areas such as foreign and economic policy.
Even after Laschet won the Union bloc's nomination in a hotly contested battle in April, Merkel remained aloof. That left some in her party wondering whether she cared what happened to it once she left. What could have been a gracious political decision to have younger politicians take the reins as the 67-year-old leader transitioned to elder stateswoman apparently backfired, leaving a huge void. It is also not known how Merkel felt about Laschet as a would-be successor.
“For a long time, she did not campaign for Laschet at all, supporting him only at the very end before the Bundestag election, when it was already too late,” said Stuewe.
As the party's dismal election result became apparent late Sunday, Laschet said “no one had an incumbent bonus in this election” — an acknowledgement that he had failed to gain from Merkel's worldwide stature.
The Union bloc is still angling for a chance to lead the next government with two smaller parties — the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats — but its second-place finish in Sunday's election behind the center-left Social Democrats makes that very difficult to justify.
Some party members have suggested it may be better to go for a period of renewal.
“Of course we're ready for talks," said Bavarian governor Markus Soeder, who leads the Christian Social Union and was beaten by Laschet to be the bloc's chancellor candidate.
But Soeder made it clear that his faction within the Union bloc is also prepared to go into opposition, adding: "We won't try to get a government together at any cost.”
The poor result for her party is unlikely to tarnish most voters' favorable views of Merkel as she stays on as a caretaker chancellor — possibly for several months — while Germany’s coalition talks play out, said Julia Reuschenbach, a political scientist at the University of Bonn.
“As long as the formation of a new government lasts, she will presumably remain the seasoned, experienced politician who now needs to lead the country through a transition period,” said Reuschenbach.
In some ways Merkel's politics will outlive her reign.
Olaf Scholz, who led the Social Democrats to a narrow victory, successfully adopted Merkel’s calm, factual style during his campaign. Her strong commitment to European integration and the trans-Atlantic alliance with the United States will also endure under Scholz or Laschet, experts say.
“In domestic policy, her successor will have to prove himself above all as a moderator between three coalition parties," said Frank Brettschneider, a specialist in communications theory at the University of Hohenheim.
In doing so, Germany's next chancellor may also need to address one of the biggest criticisms of Merkel's step-by-step approach to politics: that it failed to keep pace with the big changes happening in the country and beyond.
While some viewed Merkel as an anchor of stability, particularly in turbulent times, others saw in her a source of stagnation.
Much-needed reforms — from the digitalization of schools and government services to the greening of Germany's heavy industry — were hardly attempted under Merkel. And despite frequent, vocal protests to speed up Germany's response to climate change, she made that sure the country's powerful auto industry was shielded from tough measures.
“During Trump’s presidency, she was a projection screen for many of a more liberal and cosmopolitan, yet at its core conservative, approach to politics,” said Stuewe, the political scientist.