The image that sticks most in my mind from the uniquely disruptive political year that was 2018 is of Angela Merkel with Horst Seehofer on the balcony of the Chancellery building. The chancellor, a glass of white wine in her hand, has turned her back and is stalking away from her rebellious interior minister, as though he were a dog she’d just caught going through the kitchen garbage can. The wind has ruffled her normally perfectly styled hair. She looks unhappy, tired, old.
To be fair, Merkel had every reason to be a tad disheveled, having spent many a late night negotiating with Seehofer and her other coalition partners over one-stop holding centers for migrants, so-called “Anker” centers, versus transit centers — an issue that threatened for a few summer weeks to bring down her government and was immediately forgotten when a suitably face-saving compromise was found.
Nonetheless, this press photo was a disconcerting sight for anyone who has ever come close to the chancellor in person. I’ve witnessed her testify for five straight hours in front of a parliamentary investigative committee only to decline with a confident smile when asked if she’d like a break. For Merkel stress was always like water off a duck’s back. Until 2018.
It’s easy to see the image of an exhausted, exasperated Merkel seemingly stamping away from Seehofer as a metaphor for German democracy. If a current article in The New Yorker magazine is to be believed, one major reason Merkel decided to run for a fourth term in office in 2017 was because she felt the world needed a counterweight to US President Donald Trump. If so, 2018 was the year the moderate chancellor and the political establishment she embodies began to groan and crack under that burden.
The incipient dissolution of the SPD
The irony is that much of the political disruption in Germany was due to factors beyond the control of a chancellor whose preference — indeed whose whole political brand — is to remain above the fray. Merkel spent the first months of 2018 doing something familiar: negotiating a third centrist grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). But a funny thing happened on the way to a deal. The SPD began to disintegrate.
It started with then-SPD Chairman Martin Schulz flip-flopping on whether Social Democrats would form another Merkel-led government and whether he himself would serve in it. As a result, he was out of a job only a year after winning the party leadership by a unanimous vote, and the SPD dipped below 20 percent in the polls.
The spearhead of the campaign against the proposed…