- - Monday, October 29, 2018

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel stunned her colleagues Monday by announcing she will step down as head of her conservative party and not seek a record fifth term as chancellor in 2021, setting an end date for her dominant role in German politics — and in steering Europe — after nearly two decades leading the continent’s economic powerhouse.

The move sparked a speculative frenzy over who will succeed the 64-year-old Ms. Merkel in Berlin and whether she will be able to stay in the top job through the end of her term.

Her announcement followed another abysmal regional election result this month for the chancellor’s center-right Christian Democrats, who are in need of an image reboot after Ms. Merkel decided to allow more than 1 million refugees into the country since 2015.

“I am trying to do my part to ensure that the federal government finally gets the strength to focus on doing good for the country,” a sober Ms. Merkel said. “I am convinced that this action offers many more opportunities than risks.”

After 18 years as one of the world’s most powerful women, who had seen off numerous domestic male rivals and held her own with world leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, voters here by and large seemed to agree that the chancellor had worn out her welcome.

Ms. Merkel does whatever is on the top of her head, and most of that seems to be her own opinion,” said Erika, 77, a retiree in Berlin who refused to disclose her last name out of privacy concerns. “It’s time for her to hand the leadership to someone else.”

But the chancellor’s surprise decision could also be part of a longer game, analysts said. Her fragile government — a broad, unwieldy centrist coalition of the Christian Democrats, her conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) allies in Bavaria and the center-left Social Democrats — is more likely to hold together if her rivals know she is leaving, preventing early elections that would benefit only fringe parties on both the right and left.

“She’s aware that the slaughter of her party losing so much support has never happened before,” said Olaf Boehnke, a senior political analyst in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a think tank in Brussels. “Nobody wants to risk new elections right now.”

The announcement brought expressions of praise — even from Ms. Merkel’s political adversaries — in Germany and beyond. French President Emmanuel Macron, who worked closely with the German leader to bolster the European Union in the face of the Brexit and euro crises, told reporters of his “admiration and respect” for Ms. Merkel and praised the “dignified” way she was relinquishing power.

But many across the continent worried that the moderate chancellor’s departure will embolden far-right elements inside Germany and the forces widening the divisions with the European Union.

“The fragility of a country like Germany is always a threat to Europe,” EU Economic and Financial Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici told Public Senat TV.

Leading anti-immigrant conservative parties across Europe hailed what they see as Ms. Merkel’s downfall after her embrace of liberal immigration policies. Ms. Merkel is in political free fall, Marine Le Pen, head of the French rightist National Front, told reporters.

Regional setbacks

Ms. Merkel made her decision on the heels of massive political setbacks in two pivotal regional elections this month.

On Sunday, her Christian Democrats secured only 28 percent of the vote in the state of Hesse, home to the nation’s financial capital of Frankfurt, marking an 11-percentage-point decline from elections in 2013. The environmentalist Green Party and the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) had significant wins, receiving almost 20 percent and more than 13 percent of the vote, respectively.

In Bavaria’s regional vote on Oct. 14, the CSU received only 37 percent of the vote — its weakest result in more than 50 years. The Greens became the state’s second-strongest political force with 17.5 percent of the vote, and the AfD secured more than 10 percent.

In both elections, Ms. Merkel’s embattled coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats, lost more than 10 percent of their support, cementing a trend of voters fleeing parties tied to Berlin’s shaky government.

Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc is polling only at 24 percent nationally. The Social Democrats have the support of 15 percent, compared with 20 percent and 16 percent for the Greens and the Alternative for Germany, according to a Saturday poll from German research institute Forsa.

“This is a clear signal that things can’t continue as they have been,” Ms. Merkel said.

Still, even as she was preparing for the exits amid political turmoil, many voters said they could appreciate the tenacity of her political resolve as the nation’s first female chancellor, as well as her contributions in keeping Europe united during a time of increased instability.

“People will miss Angela Merkel once she’s gone,” said Hesse resident Stefan Baumann, 51, who said he voted for the Social Democratic Party. “She is the last among German politicians to have a strong conviction for Europe. The rest have no understanding nor respect of and for our historical responsibilities.”

Some see an opportunity for Germany to move beyond the stagnant political landscape of recent years when a “grand coalition” of the main centrist parties undercut vigorous debate and new ideas. Ms. Merkel, they say, could be liberated by the decision not to run again.

Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING-DiBa in Frankfurt, told The Associated Press that the chancellor’s moves “hold the potential for positive developments.”

“Not so much because new is always better, but rather because it could give Merkel the freedom and the tailwind — freed from party ties — to put a final stamp on her legacy, possibly with bolder steps to reform the German economy and the [EU] monetary union.”

Migration controversy

Ms. Merkel successfully navigated Germany and Europe through the eurozone financial crisis at the start of the decade and prevented a humanitarian disaster in the European Union in 2015 when she unilaterally allowed almost 1 million refugees to seek asylum in Germany as other bloc members closed their borders.

But the political maneuvering came at a steep price: Ms. Merkel’s refugee policies sparked the meteoric rise of the immigration-skeptic Alternative for Germany, which siphoned more than 1 million votes last year from Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Once on the fringe, the AfD is now the third-largest party in the German national legislature.

“It will be a loss of great leadership in the country,” said Oliver Schulte, a university student in Berlin.

With the chancellor’s days now numbered, Germany, Europe and the rest of the world are wondering who will fill the power vacuum in Berlin in her absence.

Big-name conservatives and longtime rivals of the chancellor within the Christian Democrats‘ ranks already have announced that they will be vying for Ms. Merkel’s spot at the party’s convention in early December.

Among them is Health Minister Jens Spahn, a Merkel critic whose staunch conservatism and homosexuality make him a prime candidate to reach a new generation of German conservatives, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is secretary general of the Christian Democrats, a Catholic mother of three and a former minister-president of the Saarland region, whose rhetoric and personality mirror those of the chancellor.

Either choice would move the Christian Democrats to the right, allowing them to gain ground lost to the Alternative for Germany, said Mr. Boehnke, adding that Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer would be Ms. Merkel’s favorite as a successor.

“She’d be the piece of the puzzle that Merkel was lacking, and at the same time wouldn’t try to oust Merkel prematurely,” he said.

Hand-picking a candidate who will ensure a smooth transition is crucial to a chancellor wary of throwing her coalition government into a nosedive that could lead to new elections — and cataclysmic results for her ailing party.

“This sacrifice is clever: Merkel is saying that the Christian Democrats need to get their house in order,” said Mr. Boehnke. “Because for both the Christian and Social Democrats, it could only get worse with new elections.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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