Kiran Bowry Via Fair Observer | The decision of who will follow Angela Merkel to become Germany’s next chancellor is still up in the air. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party conference to elect a new leader has been postponed until January next year.
Merkel’s approval ratings have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Recent polls show that 72% of Germans are either satisfied or very satisfied with her performance. The last time Merkel enjoyed such high popularity was in January 2015, shortly before the refugee crisis, which saw her approval ratings plummet. The refugee crisis divided German society and eroded trust in democratic institutions and the political class. Recovery from this, at least during Merkel’s tenure, appeared unlikely. But it seems another crisis was needed to reignite the love between the German public and the chancellor, a relationship that is entering its 16th — and final — year.
Since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation as party leader in February this year, three potential successors have been waiting in the wings. They will find it hard to live up to Merkel’s qualities that endeared her not only to the German, but also the global, public. Merkel’s unagitated, unpretentious and clear-headed governing style that proved particularly effective during the pandemic threatens to overshadow the three men itching to succeed her.
Friedrich Merz: Merkel’s Antithesis
Leading the polls among the three candidates is Friedrich Merz, a lawyer and former supervisory board chairman of the asset managing firm Blackrock. He comes from the economically liberal and conservative wing of the CDU, endorsing less state regulation of the economy. In 2000, before Merkel ousted him as CDU whip in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, Merz demanded a so-called “German leading culture” as a counterweight to the model of multiculturalism. Even today, he proposes cuts to social benefits for immigrants. Furthermore, he set off controversial intra-party debates during CDU regional conferences in 2018 by questioning the individual right to asylum.
His appeal: Despite losing to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in his first attempt to become the CDU leader in 2018, Merz is a popular figure among party members and has a devout group of supporters. He is a good speaker and can draw large crowds. Merz comes across as authentic and a straight talker. Furthermore, he embodies the times of the 1990s and the early 2000s, when the world seemed less complicated. That could give him an advantage, especially among older male voters.
His Achilles heel: Merz is an old foe of Angela Merkel and hasn’t occupied political office for almost 18 years. Hence, he cannot count on much support among senior party figures in the CDU, which is vital to securing the leadership. He recently underlined his intra-party role as a divisive lone warrior by stating that the cancellation of the conference on December 4 was the latest part of a concerted effort to prevent him from becoming party leader.
How he has fared during the pandemic: Without a government position and after catching COVID-19 in March, Merz struggled to get much public attention during the first few months of the pandemic. That has not changed despite his attempts to initiate a debate about the post-coronavirus economic recovery. Only his recent accusations around the delay of the party conference caught attention, probably not to his advantage.
Armin Laschet: Merkel’s Man
Merz’s closest rival, Armin Laschet, is the minister president of Germany’s most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia. He represents a continuation of Merkel’s policies and is known for defending her controversial stance on refugees and migration policy. Concerning national issues, Laschet tends to strike a moderate rather than conservative tone. Nonetheless, he has shown to be capable of appealing to the conservative wing of the party by buckling down on crime in his home state.
His appeal: Laschet is a candidate for cosmopolitan, left-leaning swing voters. Also, he has an ace up his sleeve: Laschet has teamed up with Health Minister Jens Spahn, whose conservative profile appeals to voters in rural Germany. This double ticket, which speaks to a broad voter base, and the support of the largest and influential CDU state association from North-Rhine Westphalia, make him a favorite to win the leadership.
His Achilles heel: Laschet’s attributes of being a unifier and striking moderate tones has its flipside. He is not a charismatic leader who can capture people’s hearts, which might be a disadvantage in the final weeks of the leadership race.