Will Germany find a suitable replacement for Mutti?
Many of us hardly remember the times when Angela Merkel wasn’t Germany’s chancellor. We have gotten used to seeing her represent Germany next to other world leaders, and veneration for her has expanded well beyond the German borders. However, the time has come after 16 years where, whether we like it or not, we’ll have to get used to seeing someone else leading Germany through the times ahead.
Who will it be? Since the 20th of April, it has been publicly known that Armin Laschet, Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, will take over from Merkel as the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) candidate. However, this doesn’t mean that he will succeed in replacing her as the next chancellor. His nomination as the CDU’s candidate wasn’t easy, and the election ahead promises to be even more difficult both for Laschet and the party.
Before we explore the future of Germany’s leadership, it is worth briefly exploring how Armin Laschet, a 60-year-old jovial Rhinelander, who is often considered to be “too nice” for a politician, has ended up in the race for the chancellery.
Laschet’s breakthrough happened in 2017, when he was elected Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and one that has been led by the Social Democrats for the majority of the post-war era. This success automatically made him a contender to replace Merkel, yet the past months have proven that he was far from being the “obvious” choice.
Laschet became the leader of the CDU in January 2021, after a narrow victory by 53% to 47% over Friedrich Merz who was backed by the right-leaning delegates of the party. Despite winning the leadership, he still had to secure his candidacy against the very popular Markus Söder, Minister-President of Bavaria and leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party: the Christian Social Union (CSU). In the last few weeks, the contention between Söder and Laschet has displayed the internal division within Merkel’s bloc.
On one hand, the charismatic right-leaning Bavarian politician appeared to be a bold political animal whose exuberance would contrast greatly with Merkel’s composed attitude and pragmatic approach. Politically, he has also repeatedly challenged the centrist stance that Merkel took throughout her time as chancellor. He doesn’t share Merkel’s Europhilism and has been openly critical of her handling of the immigration crisis, claiming that the Germans did not want a multicultural society.
On the other hand, Laschet was the candidate for continuity, as he has sided with the chancellor on many past issues. He is firmly pro-EU and was one of the few who openly supported Merkel’s lenient immigration policy. Yet most recently, he has distanced himself from the chancellor’s handling of the Covid crisis, arguing for a swift reopening of the economy. Meanwhile, his opponent Söder was surprisingly more in line with Merkel.
In the end, Laschet won the nomination with the support of 77.5% of the party’s executive board members, but the tug of war between both contenders has damaged the party’s image, which is likely to cost them votes at the federal elections, which is just around the corner.
On top of this, Laschet’s popularity among the German electorate is low, with a recent poll suggesting that 72% of CDU/CSU voters consider Söder to be the “better suited” candidate. Indeed, whilst Laschet managed to convince the party’s executives, his popularity amongst the general population remains low and there are doubts about his ability to unite the CDU’s conservative and pro-business voters with the more centrist voters who have only switched to the party under Merkel’s leadership. This is why many CDU/CSU voters are disappointed in the party’s choice, as they fear that it will hinder their majority in the parliament.
Several aspects are to be considered when asking ourselves why Laschet remains so unpopular amongst the electorate despite appearing as Merkel’s natural successor given his experience in the German political world. In the age of “Outsiderism”, his experience might come as a disadvantage. Now that we are coming to the end of Merkel’s 16-year-long tenureship, many are looking for a fresh face in the political landscape. Furthermore, Merkel’s popularity has been on the decline, because of lack of clarity in her handling of the pandemic’s second wave and the chaotic vaccine rollout. Therefore, his proximity to her might not play in his favour. More concerning however, are the questions to do with Lasceht’s handling of foreign policy if he was to take over from Merkel. He has been labelled a Putin-Versteher (understander) and an Assad-Verteidiger (defender) by the German press for his lenient attitudes towards both leaders. His denial of Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, his questioning of Russian involvement in the Skripalpoisoning, and him qualifying the European reactions against Russia’s annexation of the Crimea as “anti-Putin populism”, has brought him under fire in recent months. These comments, valid or not, have severely damaged his image and led many to view him as a potentially weak figure if he ever had to defend German interests and values abroad.
Nevertheless, what endangers Laschet’s election the most is the rise of the Green Party and their freshly nominated candidate Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old expert in international law. Her nomination is a first in Germany’s political history; never before has the Green Party put forward one of their own for the chancellery. With the climate crisis being an ever-growing issue, western Europe has undergone a “Green Wave” in recent years and Germany has been no exception to this. As people have started to understand the urgency that we are facing, Baerbock’s party (Alliance 90/The Greens) has gone from being perceived as a cohort of sandal-wearing hippies to a major political force in the 40 years since its creation.
Moreover, Baerbock shows strength where Laschet has been weak. Her youth and status as a newcomer on the German political scene could potentially be seen as a breath of fresh air after the Merkel-era. Yet at the same time her novice status doesn’t come with the usual traits of inexperience or incompetence. As a respected member of parliament since 2013, she has been a member of the committee on Economic Affairs and Energy as well as of the committee on European affairs. Having studied abroad, her fluent English and her expertise in international law is seen as a major asset for her potential handling of Germany’s foreign policy. She also takes a different position than Laschet as she wants Germany to take a tougher stance on Russia’s activities in Ukraine and China’s approach to human rights. With such a popular candidate and with the fragmented Christian Democratic Union that Merkel is leaving behind, polls in recent days have put the Green Party ahead of the CDU/CSU for the upcoming election. Therefore, whether Baerbock’s rising popularity is just ephemeral or whether the Green Party is going to keep up its momentum and profit from the destabilised Union is a question that cannot be answered yet. However, one thing is sure: replacing Angela Merkel isn’t going to be an easy task and the months ahead will determine Germany’s future. And Europe’s too.