The post-Merkel era: Election 2021 takes shape
The German Bundestag election season has officially commenced, with the major parties choosing their candidates for the next chancellor in preparation for election day on September 26th. However, there is the noticeable absence of incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel, as she steps aside after almost sixteen years in office. An international figure of stability and authenticity, many Germans, particularly the younger generation, are finding it challenging to picture a modern Germany without “Mutti” (Mother) at the centre of German political life. Similarly, Europe and much of the world will watch on as Germany selects its next leader, a process which will undoubtedly rock the European Union. Since Chancellor Merkel announced her future intentions to retire from political life in 2018, Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), have floundered in their efforts to find a replacement candidate for the post-Merkel era.
Initially, it seemed Ursula Von Der Leyen, and later Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, were the leading “protégé’s” expected to succeed Merkel; however, both opted out of the race. Their absence has left the party struggling through an “identity crisis”, with this leadership void leading to a level of public disillusionment in German politics not seen for quite some time. With the COVID-19 pandemic substantially affecting Germany, dissatisfaction with the present government’s pandemic response has also impacted voters’ trust in the government. This has led many to believe that Germany will be left in unprecedented political disarray without Merkel’s stabilising presence at the helm of the Chancellery.
Laschet vs Söder
History favours the CDU/CSU alliance as Germany’s preferred governing partnership, with the coalition occupying the Chancellery for “57 out of 72 years” of the Federal Republic’s existence. Merkel, like past CDU/CSU heavyweights, has found success in a “centrist and pragmatist” approach to governance. Last week, the party coalition voted to elect the current Minister-President of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet, as the CDU/CSU Chancellor candidate for September’s election. Laschet has been dubbed the natural successor to Merkel’s CDU/CSU leadership and is considered a “true Merkelianer”. This vote is significant for the party’s continued vision, as it highlights a show of support towards the “cautious centrist” as their best chance to unite the conservative and centrist blocs in true “Merkelianer” fashion. Laschet has stated that he stands for "a level-headed approach and avoiding extremes", a political stance that "turns toward people and does not turn its back on them". This is clearly a stance in favour of Merkel’s brand of policy.
However, the road to becoming chancellor candidate was not easy, with Laschet facing a difficult challenge from CSU leader, Minister-President of Bavaria Markus Söder. Söder offers a continuation of Merkel-style politics, but with a stronger, more outspoken conservative emphasis. As a partner of Merkel, Söder has become widely known for representing both the “traditional and the modern” in conservative politics in Bavaria. He is seen as a potential conservative-leaning successor to Merkel, becoming the “popular choice” amongst both conservative and non-conservative voters. Without a clear frontrunner, many have described the CDU/CSU race as a “power struggle” between the candidates. While Laschet has received “unanimous support” from the party, his popularity with the German public has plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, Söder is described as “the preferred candidate among German voters”, a status often accredited to his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is supplemented by the fact Söder previously received “unanimous backing” from the CSU as chancellor candidate prior to Laschet’s election. Söder has publicly advocated for his candidacy to the top role while openly challenging his opponents. Such dialogue has led to questions over whether Laschet is capable of uniting the perceived divided alliance, particularly moving further into election season.
Can Laschet revive the fragmented CDU/CSU alliance?
In late April, Söder quietly conceded the candidacy after Laschet’s successful election and pledged his support to his former rival. As Laschet takes the mantle of leadership, many voters have become weary after sixteen years of Merkel-CDU/CSU governance. Voters have furthermore become fatigued “in the wake of the mishaps and weaknesses” of Merkel’s government in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. Laschet has responded to such criticism by distancing himself from Merkel, stating, "we can't go on like this” referring to the current government’s COVID-19 containment and vaccine strategy. By offering a CDU/CSU coalition willing to alter the current government’s COVID-19 strategy, this distancing may prove vital for Laschet’s electoral chances.
While the road to the chancellery may appear difficult, Laschet's experience as Minister-President of North-Rhine Westphalia has often been accredited to his ability to govern his party away from disaster as an ‘expert’ in forming coalition governments. Laschet has been described by some as “the ideal candidate” for knowing “how to bring together the CDU, Greens and FDP for a three-party coalition, a proposal he is said to have strongly supported.” However, Laschet, in a bid to improve his personal standing, has also perpetrated attacks on his opponents, accusing SPD Chancellor Candidate and incumbent CDU/CSU coalition partner Olaf Scholtz of "arrogance and ignorance in the middle of the pandemic." A recent poll puts the coalition three points behind its closest rival to only 23 per cent, a devastating performance for the party which only months prior reached the high 30’s in polling, far above any rival party. While Laschet has pushed forward in arguing the importance of unity, this poll result poses the question of whether Laschet will be able to salvage the damaged CDU/CSU image through coalition-building, or whether Germany will enter a new period without CDU/CSU federal leadership.
A Green Germany?
Astonishingly, a recent poll has suggested that die Grünen (Green Party) will surpass the current CDU/CSU alliance to become the largest party in the Bundestag with 28 per cent of the vote – its best polling result in history. This comes only a week after the party elected Annelena Baerbock as its first-ever single chancellor candidate. As the only leading female candidate and at only 40 years of age, many see Baerbock as the natural successor to Merkel, offering a younger, refreshed vision for Germany in contrast to the mostly older, male candidates offered by other parties. Die Grünen were swift and united in electing Baerbock as the party’s chancellor candidate in early April, and are preparing to officially confirm her as the Greens chancellor candidate at the party’s national conference in June. This contrasts starkly against the CDU/CSU divisions which were laid bare and dragged out in public view. A recent poll also reveals Baerbock as “the most likable and credible” candidate for chancellor, with 41 per cent of voters “very satisfied” with her performance, an increase by 12 points in the last month.
This contrast between a CDU/CSU in disarray and a unified Greens under Baerbock may further stoke the winds of change, and what once was seen as a near impossibility - a Greens Chancellor - may become reality on September 26th. The Greens shared power with the SPD in a coalition government from 1998-2005, and “the time for change seems ripe again”, particularly in this period of COVID-19 and CDU/CSU leadership instability. The CDU’s recent defeats of “historic proportions” in two regional elections last month may prove telling signs of September’s eventual election result. In contrast, the Greens saw major success in both races, returning to government in both states with an increased share of the vote and the only Greens Minister-President, Winfried Kretschmann, returning to power in Baden-Württemberg.
No matter September’s outcome and who the ultimate victor may be, all chancellor candidates will be presented with the extraordinary challenge of navigating Germany through a new, post-Merkel era. Merkel’s stability has certainly been a source of comfort for Germans through tumultuous times. With major issues confronting Germany, ranging from COVID-19 containment and vaccine distribution to economic recovery and the climate crisis, Merkel’s successful tenure “has complicated life for her would-be successors, all of whom are languishing in her long shadow”.
Damian Privitera is currently studying a Bachelor of International Studies (Global Security) at RMIT University in Melbourne. He has a strong interest in international political and security affairs, diplomacy, history, cultural studies and climate change.