March 2, 2021


GERMANY: Regional elections will heat up Merkel succession race

BY Carsten Nickel

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( 3 mins)

Ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 3 March meeting with the 16 regional state leaders, lockdown fatigue and popular disgruntlement are growing, given the vaccine fiasco. Coordination problems are being exacerbated by two key regional state elections looming on 14 March. In the run-up to these votes, the Social Democrats (SPD) have unveiled their draft manifesto for the September Bundestag elections.

Built around the notion of “Respect,” the SPD calls for tax hikes for top earners, climate neutrality by 2050, and a solidaristic overhaul of public health insurance. The party’s chancellor candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, vows to personally focus on the four “future missions” of climate change, mobility, digitalization, and health. This reflects the anticipated debate about Germany’s growth model past the pandemic.

Scholz’s personal and political centrism could position him as the continuity candidate to Merkel at the middle ground, while his party is carefully switching to the left. But for the SPD’s program to become a reality and for Scholz to become chancellor, he would need a left-of-center coalition with the Greens and the post-communists. The regional elections in less than two weeks will highlight the challenges to that project in Germany’s evolving party system.

Rhineland-Palatinate is governed by a “traffic lights” coalition of the SPD with the pro-business Liberals (FDP) and the Greens. The Left looks unlikely to get into parliament, and the SPD and the Christian Democrats (CDU) are polling head-to-head. The FDP and the Greens could threaten to switch to the kind of “Jamaica” coalition Chancellor Angela Merkel had tried to forge in Berlin after the 2017 Bundestag election. But the ability and charisma of regional Minister-President Malu Dreyer might ultimately save her SPD. Yet the currently predicted 30% is a result Dreyer’s SPD colleagues in Berlin can only dream of.

Germany’s manufacturing and auto heartland, Baden-Wuerttemberg, has been the first state with a Green minister-president, ruling in coalition with the CDU. Both parties are competing for the pole position, with slight advantages for the Greens, thanks to the popularity of their regional incumbent Winfried Kretschmann. His Green conservatism has been a winning formula in the traditionally right-leaning state. Even if the CDU ended up narrowly ahead, the Greens might still be able to form a coalition with the SPD (polling around 10%) and the FDP. Hence, both elections serve as a reminder of the Greens’ centrality and of the SPD’s need to grow above the 20% mark below which it still loiters in Berlin.

Most importantly, past the elections, the Merkel succession debate will gain pace within the Christian alliance (CDU/CSU). If the CDU does not manage to win either state, this could pose a challenge for new party leader Armin Laschet. But with his less restrictive pandemic positioning, he has distanced himself from both Merkel and his main competitor for the chancellor candidacy, Bavarian leader and CSU boss, Markus Soeder.

The iron rule of CDU/CSU politics is that the Bavarians only field the candidate if the much larger CDU doubts its own leader’s qualities. This last occurred in 2002 when CDU chiefs questioned the gravitas of their new chairwoman, Merkel. As her subsequent 16 years at the chancellery come to a close, Laschet seems unlikely to face a similar degree of pushback. His candidacy is the base case past the March elections.

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