Angela Merkel, whose approval ratings have soared to record highs mainly due to her handling of the COVID-19 crisis this year, has now entered the final stretch of her final term, and her 16th year as chancellor of Germany.
Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was meant to meet in December to elect a new leader. Due to coronavirus restrictions on large events, this has now been postponed until January.
Whoever is elected to lead the CDU next year, is highly likely to be the candidate they put forward as chancellor to replace Merkel in the next federal elections on 26 September 2021.
According to the Sunday 29 November polls, if the general election were to be held next weekend, between 34% and 37% of respondents would elect the CDU. Lagging far behind, current federal coalition partners the Social Democratic Party (SPD) would get just 15% to 17% of votes. The Greens are polling at between 18% and 21%.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD), who won a swathe of voters from the CDU to enter parliament for the first time in 2017, has seen its popularity nosedive during the coronavirus pandemic. There is little interest in the refugee debate, which was their main campaign issue last election. Weekend polls put them at about 7%-11% support.
Merkel will be a tough act to follow from any perspective. While presidents and prime ministers have come and gone since she became the first female chancellor in 2005 — including five in the UK, and three in the US — the former East German scientist has muddled on.
Defining “who Merkel is” has confounded commentators and journalists. She’s been described as everything from the liberal leader of the free world to a stone-cold power player.
Merkel’s hand-picked heir, the current defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, did not last long at the helm of the CDU. She was elected by a slim margin in December 2018 and resigned earlier this year after a bunch of gaffes, culminating in a complete loss of control when CDU members in the state of Thuringia broke rank and teamed up with the AfD to elect a state premier.
Three men who have thrown their hats in the ring to lead the CDU: Friedrich Merz, Armin Laschet, and Norbert Röttgen. They are all older white men, conservatives obviously, and have all held, or currently hold top government posts.
So what sets them apart?
Friedrich Merz, a 65-year-old former corporate lawyer, ran for CDU leadership in 2018, but was narrowly beaten by Kramp-Karrenbauer. He has the backing of the young wing of the conservatives to lead the party.
When the CDU annual meet was pushed to next year, he told Welt newspaper that he suspected a plot against him, saying he had “clear indications that Armin Latschet let it be known that he needs more time to improve his performance.” He also told another outlet that some in the party establishment wanted “to prevent me from becoming party chairman."
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Merz is an old rival of Merkel, who pushed him out of his role as leader of the Bundestag in 2002. Since leaving politics in 2009, he has served on the boards of a number of companies, including Cologne Airport and HSBC Trinkaus bank. He was also the board chairman of the German arm of US investment firm BlackRock.
Merz is no stranger to provocation. In the past he has been criticised for saying immigrants to Germany need to conform to the country’s “leading culture.”
Given his considerable earnings from all his various consultancy and board roles, he also annoyed Germans by claiming he was only middle-class. Unsurprisingly, he is very pro-business.
In an interview with the Bild he also stoked controversy by saying he had no problem with the idea of a homosexual chancellor “as long as it is within the scope of the law and does not concern children — at this point I reach my absolute limits — it is not an issue for public discussion."
Several lawmakers, including health minister Jens Spahn, who is gay, expressed their disgust at the statement, which Merz said had been taken in the wrong way.
The state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia since 2017, Laschet is a close ally and supporter of Merkel, and on the more liberal-centrist side of the CDU.
The 59-year-old became a member of the EU parliament in 1999, and was a member of the Bundestag lower house of parliament for four years, until losing his seat in 1998.
Laschet has the advantage of being an affable personality, who, if elected to chairman, would not struggle to work in coalition with the Greens or the Social Democrats.
Laschet, however has not been toeing the line with Berlin’s recommendations for tougher coronavirus restriction recommendations. He has been criticised for being a bit too lax about containing the spread of the pandemic in what is Germany’s most populous state, which could hurt his shot at CDU leadership next year.
When Der Spiegel asked Latschet in an interview last month whether he would “like” to be chancellor, he said yes. “It's an extremely responsible position. An office that will completely change your life,” he said. “But if you want to make a difference in politics, then of course it is the office where you can help decide how Germany will develop in the next few years."
Norbert Röttgen (55), the head of the parliamentary affairs committee is the third candidate in the running, and also a career-politician. He was federal environment minister from 2009 to 2012.
He said in a September interview with Politico that if Joe Biden won the US election, “I would expect his government to return to a partnership based on rational thinking and cooperation.”
Röttgen is a centrist like Laschet, and used to be a favourite of Merkel, but she sacked him from his post as environment minister in 2012, a few days after he suffered a devastating loss in the regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia.
A September survey by public broadcaster ARD on who would make the best conservative chancellor found more than 52% of people said Bavarian premier Markus Söder.
Söder is head of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Merkels’ CDU, and has said he does not want to be chancellor. But he has become popular thanks to his decisive leadership during the pandemic in Bavaria.
Of the three candidates, ARD found 27% thought Merz was the best man for the job, 26% said Laschet, and 21% picked Röttgen.
A month later, the ZDF Politibarometer poll of 1,347 randomly selected voters again showed a Merz getting 30%, Laschet 27% und Röttgen 25%. In this poll, Söder’s popularity soared to 58%.
Merkel’s current vice-chancellor and federal finance minister Olaf Scholz will run as the Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor in the elections. Scholz, formerly the major of Hamburg, is not the leader of the SPD, but has proved popular during the coronavirus crisis with his willingness to lift the country’s long-standing brake on taking on new debt, and sign off on billions worth of support measures for the economy.
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