What Merkel’s De­par­ture Means for Lib­eral Democ­racy

What does Chan­cel­lor Merkel’s de­ci­sion mean for Ger­many and lib­eral democ­racy?

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - BY CRISTINA MAZA @Crisleemaza

On Oc­to­ber 29, An­gela Merkel

an­nounced that she will not seek re-elec­tion as chan­cel­lor of Ger­many in 2021. Long touted as the lib­eral West’s most stal­wart de­fender, she has come un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure from far­right op­po­nents, largely be­cause of her wel­com­ing poli­cies to­ward refugees.

Since as­sum­ing her role as chan­cel­lor in 2005, Merkel has watched as fel­low Euro­pean Union lead­ers in Hun­gary, Poland and Italy, as well as the pres­i­dent of the United States and the prime min­is­ter of Bri­tain, em­braced pop­ulism. The day be­fore her an­nounce­ment, Jair Bol­sonaro was elected as Brazil’s new pres­i­dent. The for­mer army cap­tain has de­fended the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship that ruled his coun­try from 1964 to 1985, ex­pressed sup­port for the use of tor­ture and openly de­nounced gay rights. “He is a re­sult of Brazil­ians’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the sta­tus quo— of peo­ple be­ing an­gry with cor­rup­tion, vi­o­lence and the di­rec­tion the coun­try is go­ing in,” Ja­son Mar­czak, direc­tor of the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Latin Amer­ica Cen­ter, tells Newsweek.

Jörn Fleck, a Ger­man an­a­lyst and for­mer chief of staff for a Bri­tish mem­ber of the EU Par­lia­ment, says Merkel’s re­place­ment as the leader of the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union will re­veal just how far it will go to pla­cate pop­ulists. “It will be a ref­er­en­dum on her legacy,” he says, “as well as whether the CDU should con­tinue her mod­er­ate course, pri­mar­ily tar­get­ing cen­trist vot­ers, or re­turn to a stronger con­ser­va­tive pro­file.”

The growth of pop­ulism in Amer­ica has been par­tic­u­larly frus­trat­ing for Merkel and her lib­eral ally in France, Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron. “The U.S. was al­ways will­ing to work with dictatorships when it was deemed a ne­ces­sity, but it al­ways had a pref­er­ence for lib­eral democ­ra­cies,” says Yascha Mounk, a lec­turer at Har­vard Univer­sity and an ex­pert on pop­ulism. “Un­der Trump, that’s no longer the case. Since the end of World War II, lib­eral demo­cratic ideas have been hege­monic; you could see that in dic­ta­tors who pre­tended to be demo­cratic. We may be ap­proach­ing a tip­ping point at which demo­cratic ideas are no longer suf­fi­ciently pop­u­lar.”

For that rea­son, the U.S. midterm elec­tions were closely watched. “Many in Europe [saw] them as a bell­wether: Is Trump some­thing tran­sient or some­thing they will have to deal with in the long run?” says Ian Lesser, vice pres­i­dent of for­eign pol­icy for the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund in Brus­sels, the EU’S cap­i­tal. “The Euro­pean elec­tions are com­ing up in the late spring. This will be an­other key test, and it’s ex­pected that par­ties on the mar­gin will make gains—the Greens and the ex­treme right.”

Mounk and oth­ers hope the shift right will be brief, suc­ceeded by a demo­cratic resur­gence. “But the scary thing is, we just don’t know,” he says. To that end, Mounk cau­tions against com­pla­cency. “If pop­ulist can­di­dates don’t win out­right, it doesn’t mean that pop­ulism has ended. Peo­ple said that af­ter Swe­den’s elec­tions, but the far right made in­roads. If we look at elec­tions in the ag­gre­gate, pop­ulism is on the rise.”

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