Angela Merkel once claimed she had bested Vladimir Putin during their first meeting in the Kremlin, employing what she said was an old KGB technique: staring at the Russian leader in silence for several long minutes. As the sun rose over a frigid Berlin on Feb. 7, the German chancellor’s rivals from the Social Democratic Party used the same tactic. This time, Merkel blinked.
Merkel and her team had spent the previous day and night at the headquarters of her Christian Democratic Union locked in tense negotiations with the SPD leadership. The SPD had issued an ultimatum that broke with long-standing protocol of German coalition-building: Off the bat, they demanded three key posts, including the finance and foreign ministries, power centers from which the SPD planned to set the government’s agenda, especially on Europe.
An earlier attempt at an alliance with the Greens and the Free Democrats had failed. A second collapse in talks, more than four months after the September election, threatened to sweep out the governing elite, including the chancellor who has dominated German politics for 12 years.
As delegates were summoned back to the CDU building, they could barely believe what Merkel and her party’s Bavarian sister group, the Christian Social Union, had negotiated. With so much at stake, she surrendered the portfolios for finance, foreign affairs, and labor to the Social Democrats (though the deal still needs to be approved by the SPD’s 464,000 members). CDU lawmaker Olav Gutting captured the mood with gallows humor. “Puuuh! At least we kept the Chancellery!” he tweeted Wednesday. On Sunday, Merkel took to the airwaves to explain her position. “It was a painful decision,” she told the ZDF television network. “But what was the alternative?”
The Merkel who emerged after the talks seems to be a shadow of the woman she was a year ago. With Donald Trump’s inauguration in the U.S., she’d been anointed defender of the international liberal order. In the weeks after Merkel decided to run for a fourth term, she cast herself as the counterbalance to events across the Atlantic. With Trump tearing up trade agreements and withdrawing from the Paris accord, Merkel led the globe in spearheading the global trade agenda and doubling down on her commitment to climate issues. Speaking at a rowdy beer tent in May, Merkel turned a Bavarian campaign stop into an international event, declaring—in words clearly directed at the White House—that relationships cultivated since World War II “are to some extent over.”
As the campaign got under way, the migration crisis that had come to define most of Merkel’s third term—more than a million refugees had shown up in Germany in 2015 and 2016—subsided. Merkel came to be viewed abroad as the set-in-granite leader of the old order who could face up to the impetuous U.S. leader while focusing attention on the rising ambitions of China and Russia.
What started as a fairly conventional contest between center-right and center-left parties morphed into a referendum on the establishment, not unlike votes elsewhere that had swept populist movements into power. Merkel found herself confronted at campaign events with clutches of hecklers as the far-right Alternative for Germany, almost written off after infighting damaged the party in the spring, started inching up in the polls.
Merkel’s message—a Germany in which we live “well and gladly”—came across as too mild for an anxious electorate. The chancellor’s trademark step-by-step approach to governing looked to have reached its limit. Merkel’s bloc suffered its weakest result since 1949, and the SPD did even worse. The AfD, with its anti-Merkel and anti-Muslim message, got 13 percent of the vote, becoming the first far-right party to enter parliament since the 1950s.
As coalition talks spilled over into winter, Merkel, 63, largely vacated the global stage, leaving an opening for a new generation of leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron. For Merkel, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. “There was a growing narrative publicly that if we don’t have a government, it will mainly be her fault,” says Jan Techau, director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
Merkel’s late-night concession on ministries triggered a rebuke from conservatives who have long accused her of betraying the CDU’s roots by dragging it to the center. And many bristled at a preliminary list of cabinet members composed largely of the chancellor’s stalwart allies and short on younger and more conservative voices such as Jens Spahn, a deputy finance minister who has frequently criticized the government. The right flank used the moment to exploit Merkel’s weakness, calling on her to at least start planning her departure. “Frau Merkel won’t remain chancellor for four years because there are so many breaking points in this coalition,” says Alexander Mitsch, chairman of a CDU group called the Values Union. “I’ve never seen such a sour atmosphere in the CDU.”
Merkel wasn’t the only loser of the Wednesday staredown. Her primary opponent in the talks, SPD Chairman Martin Schulz, had appeared to prevail but soon found himself out of a job. In the negotiations with Merkel, he secured the Foreign Ministry for himself and in exchange ceded the party leadership to Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s first female chief in its 154-year history. But the idea of a cabinet post for Schulz—who after the election had pledged never to serve in a Merkel government—encountered ferocious resistance from the SPD rank and file.
The SPD membership vote, which will be carried out by mail over the next few weeks, could sink the whole deal. Four years ago, three-fourths of SPD members approved a similar plan to join Merkel’s government, but the mood is more divisive this time. Many Social Democrats blame their electoral decline on the party’s role as Merkel’s junior partner and say they would do better to rebuild in opposition. If they reject the pact, Merkel would have to choose between a minority government or a return to the ballot box for an election that polls suggest would leave both main parties even weaker.
The CDU is less inclined than the SPD to brook revolt from within, but after leading her party to a historic defeat—and then giving up so much—Merkel has never appeared more vulnerable. The chancellor sought to quell the unease in the ZDF interview, reaffirming a pledge to serve her entire term, which would match the record 16-year chancellorship of her CDU predecessor, Helmut Kohl. “I promised those four years, and I’m someone who keeps promises,” Merkel said. “I totally stand behind that decision.”