Chancellor since November 2005, and still Europe’s pre-eminent politician, 2021 nevertheless will mark the end of Angela Merkel’s time as Germany’s head of government – fulfilling a promise she made to her party back in 2018 that this term as Chancellor would be her last.
With personal approval ratings back at the highs of a decade ago, and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party pushing 40% in the opinion polls, plenty of people both in Germany and beyond its borders will be sad to see her go.
But go she will, and the process to choose her successor starts this week, and will conclude this autumn.
Election of CDU party leader
Merkel has not been the CDU leader since late 2018 – that role has been filled by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. A crisis in the State of Thüringen discredited Kramp-Karrenbauer’s leadership before it had really begun, but selection of her successor has been delayed due to coronavirus.
After nine months of delay, 1,001 delegates will elect the new leader at a digital congress taking place on 16 January.
Three middle aged white men, all of them Catholic, and all of them from the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, are running.
Friedrich Merz – who has spent almost two decades outside politics – is the comeback kid, and among CDU members narrowly the front runner. His pitch is to take the CDU back to its roots: closer to German business, and with more conservative social values.
By no means a populist à la Trump or Johnson, his abrasive manner can push people the wrong way in the traditionally consensual German political environment. In public he comes across as arrogant, yet also prone to gaffes.
Armin Laschet, currently Prime Minister of Nordrhein-Westfalen, is the continuity Merkel candidate, in policy terms at least. From Aachen on the border to Belgium, he is a committed pro-European and appeals to pragmatists within the CDU.
What Laschet would actually do as party leader is hard to determine – his career to date has not been marked by strong ideology. He comes across as friendly and jovial, more akin to the mayor of a small town than as leader of Europe’s largest country.
Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee and former Environment Minister, was long considered the outsider, but an energetic campaign and his thoughtful and professional approach have won him support.
Largely a centrist-pragmatist, his long experience in foreign policy (notably urging both Germany and the EU to take a harder line towards China for example) and his commitment to a green transformation have been central to his pitch.
If no candidate achieves 50% of the vote in the first round of the election, the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated, and the top two go into a run off.
Although Merz is considered likely to win the first round, the similar appeal of Laschet and Röttgen may see one of the two of them getting enough votes transferred to them from the candidate who drops out after round one.
Röttgen has described the election as an ‘open race’ and he is right: it is currently impossible to know which of the three will succeed.
Choice of Chancellor candidate
Every party with a reasonable chance of being the largest partner in a coalition government after a Bundestag election puts forward a Chancellor candidate. This person then fronts the party’s election campaign.
The CDU leader does not necessarily become Chancellor candidate, because the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), always choose a common candidate.
The two party leaderships jointly take this decision: in 1980 (Franz Josef Strauß) and 2002 (Edmund Stoiber), they went for CSU politicians. And now, once more, a strong CSU politician stands ready to step up.
Despite Bavaria’s problems dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Söder has come across as a firm but not unreasonable politician, and one whose views are today not thought to be as conservative or right wing as they were a decade ago.
Above all, Söder is a consummate professional, good media performer, and effective campaigner.
Theoretically the CDU-CSU could go for someone else altogether – current Minister of Health Jens Spahn is often touted – but that remains an outside chance.
Problems are possibly on the horizon for the CDU, though. There are state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz on 14 March.
Ousting the Greens in Stuttgart is probably a step too far, but not emerging as the largest party and being able to form the government in Mainz is the very least that would be expected from the new CDU leader.
In other words, if the CDU is seen to suffer with its new leader, then the call will likely be made to the CSU, for Söder to step up.
Bundestag elections on 26 September
The chances are very high that the combined CDU-CSU will emerge as the largest party at the Bundestag Election, but they are going to need coalition partners.
Traditionally the CDU-CSU has been in coalitions with Free Democratic Party (economic liberals) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), but neither option might work this time.
FDP has been suffering in the polls, so CDU-CSU + FDP is unlikely to have enough seats for a majority. The polling position of the SPD has been steadily declining during the current coalition with the CDU-CSU, and so the SPD are unlikely to want to repeat the experience.
A CDU-CSU + Green coalition is hence the most likely outcome, but were Merz to be the Chancellor candidate this would be very hard – there is little common ground on economic or environmental policy between him and the Greens.
Were Laschet or Röttgen, or even Söder, to be Chancellor candidate, a coalition with the Greens would be much easier.
Some on the left, in the Greens, the SPD and Die Linke (Left Party), even hope for a Merz victory, knowing that might send more moderate Christian democrat voters towards away from the CDU-CSU, opening the door to a Green-Red-Red coalition instead.
Such hopes look like a long shot just now, but no one quite knows how the post-Merkel future of German politics is going to look.
By Jon Worth, European Political and Governance Studies Department, College of Europe. He blogs at jonworth.eu about the politics of the EU, Brexit and Germany, and is Deputy Chairman of the EU policy committee of the German Green Party.