‘Remarkable’ changes to come to Germany’s leadership as Merkel prepares to depart

BERLIN | A new coalition deal, a new government, a new chancellor – three German parties agreed on Wednesday to move forward with a new era even as remarkably, many looked wistfully backwards: The deal officially brings to a close Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s 16 years as the dominating leader of Europe’s most influential country.

“I’m not sure what we will do without her,” said Heiko, a music student in Berlin, who calls himself a Green voter but added that he appreciated Mrs. Merkel‘s “steady hand,” especially during the pandemic.

For young voters like Heiko, 22, Mrs. Merkel is the only German leader they can recall.

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Germans already know the country’s next leader, Social Democrat party head Olaf Scholz, 63. The official end of the Merkel Era took a big step forward Wednesday when Mr. Scholz announced a firm deal for a new governing coalition that will put Mrs. Merkel‘s Christian Democrats out of power for the first time since the George W. Bush administration.

The center-left Mr. Scholz has served as vice chancellor and finance minister in Mrs. Merkel’s government as a member of the junior coalition party. He doesn’t excite many and the party only won narrowly in September’s elections.

Instead, what observers say is exciting, new and unusual is the grouping itself: The deal brought together the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the leftist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) — who usually vote toward the pro-market right — in the first three-party government in Germany history.

“It’s remarkable,” said Stefan Bauman, 54, a resident of Frankfurt. “It’s much younger, much more liberal than anything we have ever seen in Germany. It shows that voters believe something new has to happen in Germany, something has to change.”

There will also be new faces in high places: Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock, 40, is expected to become Germany‘s first female foreign minister and FDP leader Christian Lindner, 42, is in line to be finance minister. Greens co-leader Robert Habeck is widely expected to take on a newly expanded economy and climate change ministry.

Many voters see the incoming chancellor as a technocrat, a caretaker in the vein of Mrs. Merkel, standing for very little ideologically but reflecting the old-school, plodding nature of the country’s two establishment parties, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats. Some predict that the coalition may ultimately prove unworkable and that the SPD will be overshadowed by the more ideological parties on the right and left.

“We have three completely different parties with different ideologies — before there were only two, which had different perspectives, but could compromise,” said Klaus Lahme, 54, who owns a clothing store in Berlin. “I think these three can work together for the first three months, but I’m not sure how it will work in the long run.”

“The programs of the Greens and the FDP will likely take the forefront, while the SPD’s programs will take a backseat,” he added. “The SPD might lead the government, but I think most of the changes might come from the other coalition partners.”

But Mr. Bauman expects the new parties to change the direction of the country.

“This coalition is going to focus on the environment, digitalization, modernization,” he said. “In the past, the governments have focused on holding on to what we have. This one looks like it’s going to focus on the future.”

Worried future

Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank, said that the election and this resulting coalition underscores how Germans are worried about the future.

“Germans prefer continuity, but if nothing changes it is understood that the country will lose its competitive advantage and ultimately its reputation as an economic powerhouse,” she said “This new three-way coalition is novel and aims to usher in transformation within Germany on many fronts whether it be weaning itself off coal by 2030 or investing in digital infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, observers say that the conservatives could splinter even more than they have over the past decade.

Mrs. Merkel, who usually polled higher than the parties she represented, alienated many in the right wing of her party and many say she wasn’t truly representative of the CDU/CSU base. It was on her watch that the far-right Alternative For Germany (AfD) party was created and won enough support to be able to enter parliament. And it was over the past decade that the CDU lost its stronghold, the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, after more than 50 years and saw its support decrease across the country.

Now, the CDU will busy itself with finding a new leader, analysts said, while the membership of the Greens, the FDP and the SPD vote to confirm Mr. Scholz as the new chancellor, likely in the first week of December.

What awaits the new chancellor is figuring out how to navigate the complicated politics of the pandemic: Germany has seen cases of COVID-19 rise to the highest levels in the pandemic and this week reported a grim milestone as COVID-related deaths topped 100,000. Mr. Scholz will also struggle to command the respect and clout that Mrs. Merkel accumulated seeing the EU through a string of political, strategic and economic crises during her tenure.

Some here also remarked on how Mrs. Merkel‘s departure has prompted a monthslong international outpouring of respect and support for Germany‘s first female chancellor – often called “Mutti” (Mommy). At home, there has been no small amount of quiet fretting at the loss of Germany‘s pragmatic and problem-solving leader.

The farewell has been in stark contrast to the departure of Mrs. Merkel‘s onetime political mentor, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who also served 16 years when he stepped down in 1998.

“We were worn out by Kohl, he became too much like a king, too crazy – there was a sense of relief when he left,” said Mr. Bauman. “Merkel, though, ran the country decently, kept things in check, kept things normal.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Scholz brought her flowers at the weekly meeting of the Cabinet, likely her last. And as the leader of Europe prepares to depart the world stage, some said she earned the respect and accolades — and more.

“I think after 16 years she deserves a rest,” said Mr. Lahme, the clothing store owner.

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