And now, it seems, she can’t even form a government. The Social Democrats have rejected another grand coalition, though Ms. Merkel continues to press them. And talks with two smaller parties, the ecologically focused Greens and the pro-civil liberties Liberals, fell apart late last year.
The most controversial part of the various coalition negotiations has been refugees: not so much the premise of accepting them, but the awkward and inconsistent manner they were handled once they arrived. After putting out a well-publicized welcome mat — the so-called Willkommenskultur, or welcome culture — refugees and German citizens alike were stunned when the government did not set up obvious programs to shelter and register before allowing them in. At the same time, Ms. Merkel seemed to give up on the notion of limits on accepting more refugees; she said in 2015 that she wasn’t quite sure if Germany’s borders could still be protected as they once were.
Her poll numbers dropped overnight; while they have improved since, many in her party still blame her for leaving the door open to a right-wing backlash in the form of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which siphoned votes away from the Christian Democrats in last year’s election.
Many also blame her stance on immigration, and her failure to promote concrete agendas, for the failure of three-party negotiations in the fall. The Christian Democrats, Greens and Liberals couldn’t single out a project that should shape their tenure. The Liberals left the table in late November after several tiring weeks. Politicians of the Green Party admitted that they also considered bailing on the talks over the chancellor’s attitude.
The Social Democrats have reluctantly started negotiations in January; more than a few conservatives wonder if they would perk up if a fresh face replaced Ms. Merkel’s on the other side of the table. The Social Democrats, after all, are in the same place, with a growing number trying to push out Martin Schulz, the head of the party and its candidate for chancellor in 2017. Under him, the once-grand party, once Germany’s largest, delivered its poorest performance in history.
Ms. Merkel’s only other option is to rule as a minority government, which would mean building coalitions on the fly, behind every new piece of legislation, always worrying about an insurrection. It’s unlikely that Ms. Merkel could succeed in such an environment, or that she’d even want to try.
Should none of these options pan out, the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will be forced to call new elections, something no one wants with the current slate of leaders — at best, the results will be the same. This is why pundits are calling for a fresh start at the top of Germany’s major parties.
In both parties, there are younger, rising politicians who are eager to enter the big stage: For the Christian Democrats, there’s 37-year-old Jens Spahn; Germans looking south to Austria, which just elected the 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz as chancellor, might be willing to get behind a new young leader. Already, in the Christian Democrats’ Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, its chairman Horst Seehofer is stepping down as state premier in favor of the much younger Markus Söder.
Mr. Spahn in particular might be ready for the top spot, given his ability to tack between cosmopolitanism — he’s openly gay, and recently married his longtime partner — and public angst over the dissolution of German identity: He recently complained that he couldn’t order a coffee in Berlin without speaking English. With Ms. Merkel still floundering in the mess she created over immigration, it may be that Mr. Spahn — or someone like him — needs to take the reins.