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

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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