German voters go to the polls this fall in critically important national parliamentary elections. By the time the vote is taken, Chancellor Angela Merkel will likely have spent 16 years as head of the German government.
In the many crises during her long tenure she was considered by many to be solid as a rock – whether it was during what has been described as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression or the current coronavirus pandemic. The cliché has seldom ringed so true: whoever succeeds Frau Merkel will put on very big shoes.
This weekend’s virtual CDU party conference will not officially decide on the chancellor’s replacement. Germany’s largest political party – the chancellor’s christian democrats – are about to elect a new president – and it will certainly be a man. But whoever is elected head of the CDU takes the pole position to become German Chancellor, if the CDU / CSU again emerges as the strongest political party after the September vote.
Three men of Catholic heart from Germany
Three candidates are in the running to be elected for the presidency of the CDU: the former party whip Friedrich Merz, the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, and Norbert Röttgen, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag. Everyone hopes to replace the unfortunate Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer after her checkered interlude at the helm of the party.
It has been widely noted that the three candidates have a lot in common: all are family men, they are Catholics, and hail from North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the most populous of Germany’s 16 federal states. All of them see themselves as centrist politicians, firmly rooted in German politics.
They are all trying to draw a line between themselves and both the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on one side and the left-wing party on the other side of the political spectrum.
It doesn’t end there, as Merz, Laschet and Röttgen also share a deep concern that their Christian Democratic Party is struggling to cope with the crucial new challenges posed by a rapidly changing society.
“Are we representative of society as a whole?” Norbert Laschet recently asked CDU members: “The answer is: no!” Which is why all three candidates are working to persuade more young voters, more women and more people from German immigrant communities to join the party. “If we are to have any chance of remaining a large, high-profile party,” says Laschet, “then we have to win the support of immigrant communities.”
The three candidates promise to speed up the digitization process in Germany and step up measures to tackle climate change while ensuring that the economy remains robust.
“ Recognition, eligibility, renewal ”
While the candidates undoubtedly have a lot in common, there are some important differences.
Armin Laschet, for example, presents himself as a supporter of social justice, but also of law and order.
Senior foreign policy scholar Norbert Röttgen wants Germany to take more responsibility in Europe and beyond: “We are the international party, the European party, the transatlantic party.” Röttgen told officials party.
Friedrich Merz, meanwhile, is widely regarded as a voice in business and finance and a proponent of traditional conservatism, whose supporters hope to win back AfD voters.
According to Uwe Jun, political scientist at the University of Trier: “Merz represents above all the recognizability of the party, Laschet for centrist eligibility, Röttgen for renewal”.
How to win elections without Merkel?
It is widely accepted that, generally speaking, Laschet represents more of the same thing: more “Merkelism”. Observers are quick to point out her seemingly unconditional support for the Chancellor during the refugee crisis and her support for her efforts to shift the party even further to the left of the political spectrum. It is therefore not surprising that Merkel has made it known that Laschet is her preferred candidate.
Merz narrowly lost to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in an earlier vote two years ago when delegates decided who would replace Angela Merkel as party leader. This time around, he is pushing again for a major upheaval within the CDU. He has already called on the party to come out of the shadow of Angela Merkel.
Merz admits that the Chancellor’s calm and consistent handling of the coronavirus crisis has strengthened the CDU’s position in the polls. But, he adds: “We will not be elected on September 26 out of gratitude for what we have accomplished in the past but on the basis of expectations and hopes for the future”.
A tight race
But what does the party need the most? Is it a renewal? Or is it more Merkel, without Merkel? Uwe Jun thinks it would be wrong to simplify. Everything is relative, he says, and it all depends on your position: “The CDU has always seen itself as a government party that wins elections. If that is the criterion, Laschet represents the least risk.”
Laschet is the only one of the three currently in a frontline government office. Merz never had a government post. And for his part, Röttgen was spectacularly ousted from his post as German environment minister in 2012 by none other than Angela Merkel.
But the question of who has the most experience in elected office does not appear to work in Laschet’s favor or significantly hurt the prospects of others. Currently, Friedrich Merz seems to have taken the lead. Polls put him at around 30%, with Röttgen and Laschet both behind around 25% of CDU voters. And among the general electoral public in Germany, Röttgen actually appears to be withdrawing from Laschet.
In 2018 Health Minister Jens Spahn (left) ran for party leader against Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Friedrich Merz
Other candidates wait behind the scenes
The point is, whoever wins Saturday’s vote still has a long way to go to become the next German leader. After all, none of the three candidates are leading in national polls on what German voters as a whole want to see as their new chancellor.
Health Minister Jens Spahn still officially supports Laschet’s candidacy and has partnered with him as an MP. The 40-year-old is younger and openly gay, a profile that could help the CDU forge a new, more inclusive image for the party. Spahn is playing his cards cautiously but hasn’t ruled out putting his hat on in the ring as a potential candidate for Germany’s top job.
Another potential candidate waiting behind the scenes does not even belong to the CDU: Markus Söder is the prime minister of Bavaria and head of the CSU, the Bavarian twin party of the CDU. He registers 55% in the polls and an astonishing 80% among conservative voters across the country.
Her mantra so far has been “my place is in Bavaria”. But observers wonder: would he stick to that line, if and when the CDU offered to support him for the chancellery?
This article has been translated from German.