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January 12, 2021

Europe

GERMANY: The Merkel succession race is only about to begin

BY Carsten Nickel

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( 4 mins)
  • Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) will vote for a new party leader at their digital convention on 16 January.
  • However, this will not yet mark the decision about who will lead the Christian alliance (CDU/CSU) into the 26 September Bundestag elections.
  • The candidature question will still take some time, but the main determinant of policy will be the overall dynamic towards CDU/CSU-Green cooperation.

Contest

1,001 delegates will vote online on 16 December, whittling down the field of three contenders to one. But given legal hurdles, a formal confirmation in a postal ballot will still be required. The procedure rests on the agreement between all three contenders that only the winner of the 16 January digital votes will be the single candidate on the postal ballot. Therefore, the confirmatory ballot result is expected by 22 January, but the new party leader’s name will already be known on 16 January.

In terms of contenders, right-winger Friedrich Merz remains the most popular candidate at the party grassroots. But among the regional delegates, North Rhine-Westphalia’s centrist state PM Armin Laschet might still have the best chances. Liberal foreign affairs expert Norbert Roettgen has widely been seen as having merely outsider chances.

Profiles

Merz would reflect the clearest break with the Merkel days. The chancellor’s ascent to power began in opposition in 2002 with a putsch against Merz, then-leader of the CDU/CSU Bundestag group. Merz’s candidature is half personal vendetta, half down to his conviction that given the rise of the far-right AfD, the CDU must reconnect to the more traditional conservatism subsequently dismantled by Merkel’s relentless centrism.

In contrast, Roettgen would stand for a desire to double down on Merkel’s modernization course, further pronouncing the CDU’s liberal and green credentials. Roettgen’s popularity in circles of pro-EU think-tankers and former technocrats is no coincidence. The 55-year-old lawyer from Meckenheim near Bonn might arguably be the closest German politics has come to any form of Macronist offering, at least programmatically.

Any CDU leader will likely have to cooperate with the Greens after September. This is why Laschet – branded the party establishment’s candidate by Merz – might indeed end up being the preferred choice of regional state party delegations. On the one hand, he is more centrist than Merz and, in that sense, a continuation of Merkel, who has long flirted with the Green power option. But rooted in Rhineland Catholicism, Laschet may connect better than Roettgen (and the personally reserved East German Merkel) with more traditional CDU/CSU currents. He also has experience running a regional state larger than most EU member countries.

Succession

While the next CDU leader will have good chances to succeed Merkel, the eventual chancellor candidate will only be determined later, in coordination with the CDU’s sister party CSU. Its leader, Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder, remains the most popular among the potential Merkel successors. A candidature of the CDU’s own Jens Spahn also remains a possibility, provided the hitherto popular health secretary can overcome the impression of national organizational failure after the slow start to the vaccination campaign.

CDU/CSU’s candidate might only be decided after the 14 March regional elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The Greens will be major players in both states. This will foreshadow the need to balance carefully between green cooperation and competition in choosing the CDU/CSU candidate. The 25 April early elections in Thuringia will further highlight the challenges of keeping CDU/CSU together as the last resemblance of old catch-all parties at the political center: the Thuringia polls were triggered by the local CDU’s flirtations with the far-right AfD last year, halted only after Merkel intervened personally. Finally, the 6 June regional elections in Saxony-Anhalt will test a local CDU coalition with both the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens.

Policy

Therefore, the overall direction of German politics is clear, even if the decision about CDU/CSU’s chancellor candidate might still take some time. There will likely be little alternative to CDU/CSU cooperation with the Greens. For the foreseeable future, this will mean continued pro-European centrism and a renewed focus on climate change and the green transition. Not just in terms of parliamentary numbers but also regarding German society at large, a CDU/CSU-Greens government would be the new “grand coalition” amid the SPD’s continued decline.

The risk for CDU/CSU is further losses on the more traditionalist fringes. CDU/CSU’s fight with this specter could manifest itself in internal and coalition clashes in case of renewed Eurozone problems or migration-related issues. But a more immediate signpost for a “back-green” coalition would be the question of post-pandemic fiscal consolidation versus investment. Berlin’s commitment to Europe is certainly not at risk after Merkel, but neither is it clear that the days are gone in which Germany insists on sound fiscal policy while shrugging off public investment.

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