The Inevitable Decline of Merkel’s Popularity



German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a press conference on September 19, the day after regional election polls in Berlin.

The Inevitable Decline of Merkel’s Popularity

September 20, 2016  •  From

As Merkel deals with Syria, Turkey, immigrants and terrorism, her popularity is falling. What will come next?

By Kieren Underwood


For the “Quiet German,” who is the most powerful woman in the world, politics has long been a game of matching public opinion. “I’m going to be all things to all people,” Angela Merkel said after winning the German chancellorship in 2005. When one of Merkel’s advisers was asked about her long-term view, the adviser replied, “The chancellor’s long-term view is about two weeks.” When Green leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt was asked by George Packer whether Merkel had any principles, she hesitated before saying, “She has a strong value of freedom and everything else is negotiable.”

For 11 years, Merkel’s tactical genius has worked. She has been the master listener, the scientific analyst. Trained as a physicist, she has watched every detail, bided her time, kept her mouth shut, and stayed two steps ahead of every competitor. Even now many of her critics won’t deny that the economic picture is the best Germany has seen.

But a fault has recently appeared in the Merkel machine: She has gone against public opinion.


The Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state elections on September 4 proved that. Usually its state elections bear little significance; Mecklenburg-Vorpommern makes up only 2 percent of the German population. Yet Spiegel called the elections a “vote about the chancellor,” the “Merkel-vote.”

The idea that higher turnouts of voters weaken “populist” parties is being disassembled in Germany. Indeed, it seems to be a fallacy from the beginning—“populists” target the ordinary man, and now the ordinary man is making his way to the ballot box.

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (cdu) placed third in the elections, with a mere 19 percent of the vote. Ahead of it were the Social Democrats (spd) with 30.6 percent and Alternative for Germany (AfD) with 20.8 percent.

Right now, Merkel leads Germany through the grand coalition of the conservative parties cdu and Christian Social Union (csu) partnered with the left-leaning spd. Coalitions have been common throughout pre- and postwar Germany. With the cdu and spd representing both sides of the political spectrum, the New Yorker had previously commented that the “consensus in Germany is so stable that new laws pour forth from parliament while meaningful debate has almost disappeared.”

But debate is back, and Merkel is being attacked by enemies and allies. Edmund Stoiber, the former state premier of Bavaria and csu veteran, has repeatedly identified what he believes is the problem: The cdu has let another party answer the concerns of conservative citizens.

The AfD certainly addressed the concerns of the conservative citizens in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and as Stoiber suggests, the cdu seems to have lost sight of the democratic right. But, as the Trumpet wrote in April, “People don’t really trust the AfD, but they don’t see an alternative—the csu is only present in Bavaria.”

Two weeks after the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state elections, on September 18, the scenario nearly repeated itself in Berlin. Merkel’s cdu recorded its worst result ever, picking up only 17.6 percent of the vote. The AfD rocketed, entering the parliament for the first time with 14 percent of the vote.

Going Against Public Opinion

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 was a turning point for Merkel’s approach to public opinion. Russian President Vladimir Putin had quickly and effectively gained territory, and the West was horrified. Although Merkel did not want to use military force, she promised that Russia would “not get away” with the annexation. She wanted a serious response.

Public opinion was against her. Spiegel reported that 54 percent of Germans believed the European Union and United States should accept Russia’s actions. A Pew poll revealed only 19 percent of Germans supported nato sending arms to Ukraine—the lowest percentage of the nato nations surveyed.

Since then, the chancellor’s popularity has taken a beating. The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, finally wreaked its consequences in Germany in 2014. Spiegel identified Syria as Merkel’s “biggest problem.” Merkel’s only guiding principle, as Katrin Göring-Eckardt said, has been “a strong value of freedom.” For the chancellor, that means allowing millions of migrants into Germany.

Merkel’s popularity falls below 50% for the first time ever. [#Germany Infratest/Dimap poll]:
46% -8 points

— Yannis Koutsomitis (@YanniKouts) February 3, 2016

Two million migrants entered Germany in 2015. Around 860,000 of them departed at the same time, leaving Germany with 1.1 million more residents. In comparison, net immigration in the United States—where immigration has dominated political debates—was 1.7 million. America’s population is four times the size of Germany’s, with 27 times the land area. To match the magnitude of Germany’s issue, the U.S. would have to have immigration rates 2½ times greater than it has now.

To cap off the year of immigration, an estimated 2,000 “Arab” or “North African” men working in groups sexually assaulted around 1,200 women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. The assaults were one of Germany’s biggest scandals in recent years, made worse by the “failure of national newspapers and public broadcasters to report on them until days after the event.”

Those who had reservations about the impact of Muslim immigration were swept over the edge with floods of outrage. That small minority of genuinely racist Germans now had a reason to scream. Arsons and crimes against refugee shelters increased 15-fold and fivefold respectively from 2014 to 2015.

And yet, Chancellor Merkel stood by her migrant policy. Before the immigrants arrived, her popularity was at 75 percent. Halfway into 2016, it had dropped below 50.

Then came the Böhmermann scandal. It was underreported by international media—hardly anyone outside of Europe would know of the tv moderator and satirist, Jan Böhmermann, who works for German public broadcaster zdf. But his poem insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sparked a huge debate in Germany.

The German chancellor had been working overtime to broker a deal with Turkey to seal off migrants flowing in from the Middle East. The deal itself was controversial, and arranging it meant pandering to the Turks who have been trying to gain entry into the EU for years. In short, Merkel wanted to please Erdoğan.

President Erdoğan saw the poem as an offensive attack on a foreign head of state and demanded Germany prosecute Böhmermann. Merkel jumped to Erdoğan’s aid, prohibited the publication of the poem, and allowed Böhmermann’s prosecution.

“We just experienced the beginning of the end of chancellorship #Merkel,” Oliver Kalkofe wrote on Twitter concerning the Böhmermann affair. “I am ashamed by the lack of spine.”

As the scandal’s effects kicked in, we wrote, “At the beginning of April, 56 percent of the population was satisfied with Merkel’s policy .… But after Böhmermann’s poem, her popularity dropped by 11 percent—a big shift in German politics.”

Terrorism Finally Hits

Notwithstanding the loud criticism of her migrant policies from supposed party allies such as Horst Seehofer, Edmund Stoiber and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, prior to July, Merkel could point to the fact that no serious terrorist attacks had yet occurred on German soil.

July changed that.

As we reported in the September Trumpet issue:

Germany was shocked to experience four high-profile killings in the space of only a week. A teenage Afghan immigrant on an ax rampage seriously injured three on July 18, leaving a railway carriage looking like a “slaughterhouse,” as one witness put it. The attacker claimed allegiance to the Islamic State. On July 22, an Iranian man born in Germany killed nine with a Glock pistol he’d bought illegally, after spending a year planning the attack. On July 24, a migrant from Syria killed a pregnant woman and wounded two others with a meat cleaver. On the same day, a Syrian immigrant whose deportation to Bulgaria had been delayed tried to bomb a music festival in Ansbach, Bavaria. His lack of a ticket meant he was not let in, so he blew himself up outside, wounding 15.

The terrorist attacks were not near the scale that occurred in Paris and Nice, France. Nevertheless, after Merkel’s popularity experienced a brief bounce-back after Brexit, it declined drastically again. The popularity of Horst Seehofer, state premier of Bavaria and csu leader, experienced the inverse of Merkel’s decline.

Merkel’s popularity plunges after July terrorist attacks

— WSJ Graphics (@WSJGraphics) August 6, 2016

Who Can Replace Her?

In all this, no single politician stands out as the successor to Merkel’s long reign. To the public, Horst Seehofer is not up to the job. He has done well when he criticizes Merkel, but you can’t base policy on accusations. Frauke Petry, of the rising AfD, is barely even trusted by supporters of her own party—most see the popularity of the AfD as protest votes. Veteran politician Edmund Stoiber has rejected a comeback—he says he’s too old—and is comfortable to continue “Merkel-bashing” in the beer halls instead.

Angela Merkel won’t go down easily because she’s a brilliant politician—possibly one of the greatest of our time. cdu politician Rainer Eppelmann, who became close to Merkel after the fall of the Berlin Wall, said, “I have the impression that she thinks things over more carefully and is always a few moves ahead of her competitor.”

The chancellor isn’t oblivious to Germany’s problems. One senior official in her government described her as the “best analyst of any given situation that I could imagine.” But this time, she has decided to act contrary to public opinion.

We are witnessing the decline of Merkel’s popularity. Next we will see someone who can give the public what it wants; a man for emergencies. Germany wants a man who will speak “plain-text” to the public. For years, the Trumpet has been watching for such a man. Read A Strong German Leader Is Imminent for more details. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decline is inevitable. But what comes next will be more dramatic and is equally inevitable. ▪