German voters go to the polls this fall in a national parliamentary election of momentous importance. By the time the vote takes place, Chancellor Angela Merkel will likely have served 16 years in office as head of the German government. In the many crises during her long term in office, she has been seen by many as a rock in the storm – be it during what was described as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression or the current coronavirus pandemic. Rarely has the cliché rung so true: whoever succeeds Ms. Merkel will be stepping into some very big shoes.
The virtual CDU party conference this weekend will not officially be deciding on who replaces the chancellor. No, Germany’s largest political party – the chancellor’s Christian Democrats – are set to elect a new chairman – and it will really be a man. But whoever is elected as CDU leader moves into pole position to becoming German chancellor, if the CDU / CSU again emerges as the strongest political party after September’s vote.
Three men from Germany’s Catholic heartland
Three candidates are vying to be elected as the next CDU chairman: former party whip Friedrich Merz, the State Premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, and Norbert Röttgen, head of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Each is hoping to replace the luckless Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer after her checked 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, all Catholics, and all from North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the most populous of Germany’s 16 federal states. All see themselves as centrist politicians, firmly rooted in the middle ground of German politics. They are all at pains to draw a line between themselves and both the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the one side and the Left Party on the other.
It does not stop there, because Merz, Laschet, and Röttgen also share a deep-seated concern that their Christian Democrat party is struggling to face 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 explains why all three candidates are focusing on persuading more young voters, more women, and more people from Germany’s immigrant communities to join party ranks. “If we want to have any chance of remaining a broad-based big-tent party,” says Laschet, “then we must win the backing of immigrant communities.”
All three candidates are promising to speed up the process of digitalization in Germany and step up measures to combat climate change while, at the same time, making sure that the economy remains robust.
‘Recognizability, electability, renewal’
While the candidates undoubtedly have much in common, there are significant differences.
Armin Laschet, for instance, styles himself as a proponent of social justice, but also of law and order.
Norbert Röttgen, a high-profile foreign policy specialist, wants Germany to take on more responsibility both in Europe and further afield: “We are the international party, the European party, the transatlantic party. And we must once again step up,” Röttgen told party officials.
Friedrich Merz, meanwhile, is widely viewed as a voice of business and finance and an advocate of traditional conservativism, whose supporters hope will win back voters from the populist Alternative for Germany.
According to Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier: “Merz above all stands for the recognizability of the party, Laschet for centrist electability, Röttgen for renewal.”
How to win elections without Merkel?
It is widely assumed that broadly-speaking Laschet stands for more of the same: more “Merkelism”. Observers are quick to point to his seemingly unquestioning support for the chancellor during the refugee crisis and his backing for her efforts to shift the party further to the left of the political spectrum. No surprise, therefore, that Merkel has let it be known that Laschet is her preferred candidate.
Merz narrowly lost out to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in an earlier vote, two years ago, when delegates decided who would replace Angela Merkel at the head of the party. This time around, he is again pushing for a major shake-up within the CDU. He has already called on the party to step out of Angela Merkel’s shadow. Merz concedes that the chancellor’s calm and steady handling of the corona crisis has boosted the CDU’s standing in the polls. But, he adds: “We won’t be elected on September 26 out of gratitude for what we’ve achieved in the past but on the basis of expectations and hopes for the future.”
A tight race
But what is it that the party most needs? Is it renewal? Or is it more Merkel, without Merkel? Uwe Jun believes it would be wrong to simplify. It is all relative, he says, and it all depends on where you stand: “The CDU has always seen itself as an election-winning party of government. If that is the yardstick, then Laschet represents the least risk.”
Laschet is the only one of the three currently in a front-line government office. Merz has never had a government post. And for his part, Röttgen was spectacularly ousted from office as Germany’s environment minister back in 2012 by none other than Angela Merkel.
But the issue of who has the most experience in an office does not appear to be either playing out in Laschet’s favor or significantly damaging the prospects of the others. Currently, Friedrich Merz appears to have his nose ahead. Polls put him on around 30% with Röttgen and Laschet both trailing at around 25% of CDU voters. And among the general voting public in Germany, Röttgen actually seems to be pulling away from Laschet.
In 2018 Health Minister Jens Spahn (l) ran for party leader against Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Friedrich Merz
Other candidates waiting in the wings
The fact 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 is ahead in national polls on who German voters as a whole want to see as their new chancellor.
Health Minister Jens Spahn still officially supports Laschet’s candidature and has teamed up with him as his deputy. The 40-year-old is youthful and openly gay, a profile that could help the CDU to forge a new and more inclusive image for the party. Spahn is playing his cards cautiously but has not ruled out putting his hat in the ring as a potential candidate for Germany’s highest office.
Another potential candidate waiting in the wings does not even belong to the CDU: Markus Söder is the influential State Premier of Bavaria and head of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU. He’s clocking 55% in the polls and an astonishing 80% among conservative voters across the country.
His mantra: “My place is in Bavaria.” But observers wonder: Would he stick to that line, if and when the CDU offered to back him for the chancellery?
This article has been translated from German.