The decision of who will follow Angela Merkel to become Germany’s next chancellor is still up in the air. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party conference to elect a new leader has been postponed until January next year.
Merkel’s approval ratings have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Recent polls show that 72% of Germans are either satisfied or very satisfied with her performance. The last time Merkel enjoyed such high popularity was in January 2015, shortly before the refugee crisis, which saw her approval ratings plummet. The refugee crisis divided German society and eroded trust in democratic institutions and the political class. Recovery from this, at least during Merkel’s tenure, appeared unlikely. But it seems another crisis was needed to reignite the love between the German public and the chancellor, a relationship that is entering its 16th — and final — year.
The Downward Spiral of Angela Merkel’s CDU
Since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation as party leader in February this year, three potential successors have been waiting in the wings. They will find it hard to live up to Merkel’s qualities that endeared her not only to the German, but also the global, public. Merkel’s unagitated, unpretentious and clear-headed governing style that proved particularly effective during the pandemic threatens to overshadow the three men itching to succeed her.
Friedrich Merz: Merkel’s Antithesis
Leading the polls among the three candidates is Friedrich Merz, a lawyer and former supervisory board chairman of the asset managing firm Blackrock. He comes from the economically liberal and conservative wing of the CDU, endorsing less state regulation of the economy. In 2000, before Merkel ousted him as CDU whip in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, Merz demanded a so-called “German leading culture” as a counterweight to the model of multiculturalism. Even today, he proposes cuts to social benefits for immigrants. Furthermore, he set off controversial intra-party debates during CDU regional conferences in 2018 by questioning the individual right to asylum.
His appeal: Despite losing to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in his first attempt to become the CDU leader in 2018, Merz is a popular figure among party members and has a devout group of supporters. He is a good speaker and can draw large crowds. Merz comes across as authentic and a straight talker. Furthermore, he embodies the times of the 1990s and the early 2000s, when the world seemed less complicated. That could give him an advantage, especially among older male voters.
His Achilles heel: Merz is an old foe of Angela Merkel and hasn’t occupied political office for almost 18 years. Hence, he cannot count on much support among senior party figures in the CDU, which is vital to securing the leadership. He recently underlined his intra-party role as a divisive lone warrior by stating that the cancellation of the conference on December 4 was the latest part of a concerted effort to prevent him from becoming party leader.
How he has fared during the pandemic: Without a government position and after catching COVID-19 in March, Merz struggled to get much public attention during the first few months of the pandemic. That has not changed despite his attempts to initiate a debate about the post-coronavirus economic recovery. Only his recent accusations around the delay of the party conference caught attention, probably not to his advantage.
Armin Laschet: Merkel’s Man
Merz’s closest rival, Armin Laschet, is the minister president of Germany’s most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia. He represents a continuation of Merkel’s policies and is known for defending her controversial stance on refugees and migration policy. Concerning national issues, Laschet tends to strike a moderate rather than conservative tone. Nonetheless, he has shown to be capable of appealing to the conservative wing of the party by buckling down on crime in his home state.
His appeal: Laschet is a candidate for cosmopolitan, left-leaning swing voters. Also, he has an ace up his sleeve: Laschet has teamed up with Health Minister Jens Spahn, whose conservative profile appeals to voters in rural Germany. This double ticket, which speaks to a broad voter base, and the support of the largest and influential CDU state association from North-Rhine Westphalia, make him a favorite to win the leadership.
His Achilles heel: Laschet’s attributes of being a unifier and striking moderate tones has its flipside. He is not a charismatic leader who can capture people’s hearts, which might be a disadvantage in the final weeks of the leadership race.
How he has fared during the pandemic: As head of a state government, the COVID-19 crisis was a chance for Laschet to get an advantage over his competitors. He failed to seize it. In his attempt to take a more light-hearted approach to the virus, Laschet exuded nervousness. It came across as a desperate attempt to distinguish himself from his adversary, the Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder, who implemented more rigorous measures to fight the pandemic. But with time, as people become weary of constraints, his strategy might come to fruition.
Norbert Röttgen: Merkel’s Smartest
Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag, represents the left-wing of the CDU. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, he instigated the phasing out of Germany’s nuclear power as federal environment minister. He also favors a yet unprecedented coalition between the CDU and the Greens on a national level. Regarding foreign policy, he demands a more decisive and self-assured role for Germany in international affairs.
His appeal: As a former member of Merkel’s cabinet, Röttgen was referred to as “Muttis Klügster” — Mother’s Smartest. His strength is a profound knowledge of policy, coupled with rhetorical skills that allow him to come across thoughtful and precise.
His Achilles heel: Röttgen has no noteworthy supporter group within the party and is having trouble distinguishing himself from the other two candidates. On the one hand, his policies resemble Laschet’s too closely while also not appealing to conservative party members. He is the clear outsider in the race.
How he has fared during the pandemic: Not very well. Without inhabiting any political office, Röttgen was hardly visible during the pandemic.
What About Markus Söder?
Regardless of how the leadership race unfolds, Markus Söder, the party leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is touted as Germany’s next chancellor. Most Germans would prefer him over the three candidates running for the CDU’s party leadership. According to opinion polls, 37% of the German electorate would choose Söder as chancellor over potential competitors from the Greens and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Despite being the second choice among CDU members after Friedrich Merz, 53% of the membership regards Markus Söder as the candidate with the highest chances of winning a general election.
Söder’s rising popularity is nothing short of unexpected. In his younger years, Söder came across as an overambitious agitator and a vain self-promoter. But he has masterfully used the COVID-19 crisis as a stage to demonstrate a statesmanlike demeanor with a supposedly firm grip on things. Remarkably, above-average coronavirus case numbers and failures in Bavarian testing centers have not affected his high approval ratings. But Söder himself has remained tight-lipped about his ambitions. When asked whether he rules out running for chancellor, he typically replies with the phrase, “My place is in Bavaria.” Until now, this non-committal strategy has proved to be shrewd. While the three candidates might wear themselves out in petty skirmishes, he can enhance his idealized self-image of the caring and resolute Bavarian chief minister.
Nevertheless, his opportunity to run for chancellor is dependent on the outcome of the leadership race. An equally ambitious fighter, Friedrich Merz would hardly give the chancellorship a miss if elected party leader. Only a victory for Laschet or a surprise candidacy of his running mate, Jens Spahn, would open a clear window of opportunity for Söder.
The delay of the party conference has added a new dimension to the race. It has given candidates in public offices like Laschet and Söder more time and opportunity to shine. In contrast, other candidates, particularly Friedrich Merz, are scrambling for the limelight. That has led to resentment as Merz sees the delayed party conference as a plot to thwart his chances. He might have a case.
The longer Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer remains party leader, the more she can pull strings toward a more favorable outcome. It is an open secret that she, as well as Angela Merkel, would prefer Laschet over Merz. Also, Kramp-Karrenbauer warned against possible surprise candidacies to avoid a “ruinous competition.” Rumors suggest that Jens Spahn, who is increasingly popular among CDU members as well as voters, could enter the race.
As the infighting in the party commences, the CDU should not forget why the leadership race is taking in the first place. The CDU is at a crossroads and under severe pressure from the right. As the pandemic continues to create problems for Angela Merkel’s government, her party has to decide whether it wants to win back conservative voters from the far-right Alternative for Germany party or stay on a liberal course set by Merkel.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.