Opinion: Angela Merkel must leave on her own terms
German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to have a sense of liberation about her now; she handed over the leadership of her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, popularly known as AKK, in December.
In fact, Merkel appears to be visibly enjoying her final go at the chancellorship. Free from the shackles of internal party politics, she now governs more outwardly. And according to the latest polls, most Germans want to see her remain in office as long as possible.
Meanwhile, Kramp-Karrenbauer has been tending to the divisions within the CDU and carving out her own profile. She and Merkel bought time and leeway to prepare for an orderly transfer of power.
In theory, this sort of "division of labor" could continue for quite some time, and officially that is how it should play out. But the political reality is different: It will not be long before the chancellor completely relinquishes power.
AKK out to distinguish herself
Not only will German domestic politics define the coming year, with several important state elections taking place throughout the country, the European Parliament elections are also just around the corner.
If the CDU again experiences huge losses at the polls — which, according to current predictions, is quite possible — things could become turbulent.
Kramp-Karrenbauer's own path to political stardom is impressive in its own right. Wherever possible, AKK has aimed to distinguish herself from Merkel: She directly addresses the problems that frustrated members of the CDU's more conservative wing have with Merkel, has a much tougher stance on migration policy and even makes politically incorrect jokes.
And last weekend tellingly it was not Merkel who responded to French President Emmanuel Macron's appeal to reform the European Union, but Kramp-Karrenbauer — the one the chancellor has tapped as her preferred successor.
In doing so, Kramp-Karrenbauer unequivocally laid out her foreign policy vision, and sent a clear signal in the process — especially abroad. This step alone suggests that a change in leadership in Germany — whatever that may end up looking like — could be imminent.
But if there is anything sure to delay that handover, it is loud demands that Merkel resign. She doesn't want to and won't depart under pressure. Even if the exact time of the farewell remains uncertain, she is continuing to govern for now. Merkel explained that herself.
Yes, pressure forced her to step down as CDU leader. But what difference does that make? Without exception, all of Germany's previous chancellors have clinged to power — even under pressure — until voters or the country's parliament, the Bundestag, pushed them out of office. The pragmatic and confident Merkel, on the other hand, initiated her departure on her own terms.
This assertiveness from a female politician is something completely new in the previously male-dominated German political sphere. Perhaps that's why some people can't comprehend what's going on?
When will Merkel say goodbye?
That said, Merkel is stretching the date of her departure to the limit. This shouldn't be viewed as careless, however, but as a sign of strength and a sense of responsibility.
Merkel does not want to throw in the towel at the call of others; she wants to choose the moment herself — when it suits her — and ensure political stability in Germany.
In a year in which the CDU has to assert itself in state elections where far-right populists threaten to make inroads on Germany's traditional base of conservative support, there are a few dates that might make sense for Merkel to depart. But has this chancellor ever shown herself to be predictable?
It could still weeks or months before Merkel takes the next step. We may well be surprised again when a concrete date is eventually set. A word of advice to all those who are impatient: Enjoy the calm before the storm! For no matter what happens next, no chancellorship will be as calm as Merkel's has been.