BERLIN –; Germany is in denial.
Angela Merkel”;s time as German chancellor will end –; at her own insistence –; in just over a year. Yet the Germans themselves appear far from ready to let go.
Indeed, the closer Merkel”;s political end gets (her term ends in October 2021), the more popular she becomes. The German leader”;s personal approval rating has soared to over 70 percent in recent months, largely thanks to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, up from the mid-50 percent range a year ago.
When a reporter for German public television asked Merkel during a rare television interview last month whether she would be willing to reconsider her decision to exit the political stage, the question sounded more like a plea than journalistic query.
“;Don”;t you sometimes think that you need to remain in a position of responsibility?”; the journalist asked, only to be abruptly cut off by a decisive “;nein”; from the chancellor.
While Merkel can take comfort in Germany”;s new love affair with her, it has complicated life for her would-be successors, all of whom are languishing in her long shadow. That has left the question of who will be leading Germany in a year”;s time less clear than it has been in decades.
Merkel”;s original choice for a successor, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, pulled herself out of the race in February after concluding she didn”;t have sufficient support from her fellow Christian Democrats (CDU).
Kramp-Karrenbauer”;s decision triggered a new contest for the leadership of the CDU, which she took over as chairwoman from Merkel in late 2017. Though the current competition is nominally for the party leadership, the victor was also expected to become the party”;s candidate for chancellor in 2021.
Until the pandemic hit, that is. The coronavirus not only forced the party to delay a decision until the end of the year; it also upended the contest, triggering doubts about the suitability of some of the candidates, in particular the frontrunner.
Armin Laschet, regional premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, appeared to have the leg up on the competition in the wake of Kramp-Karrenbauer”;s announcement.
A Merkel favorite, Laschet combined a moderate voice with the gravitas that comes from leading Germany”;s most populous state. A fluent French speaker, Laschet also enjoyed a long reputation as a dedicate European. Even if he was still unfamiliar to most Germans, many who knew Laschet had a positive impression.
That changed quickly after the coronavirus hit. Laschet”;s response to the pandemic in his state has raised serious questions about his judgment. Though North Rhine-Westphalia was among the hardest-hit regions in Germany, he was reluctant to impose restrictions on the population to halt the spread of the virus. And while he eventually followed the lead of other states by closing restaurants, bars and most shops, he was also among the first to call for a lifting of the measures.
When Germany”;s worst coronavirus outbreak erupted last month in a slaughterhouse in his state, forcing a strict lockdown in Gütersloh, an important regional center, Laschet again looked to be in over his head.
Laschet”;s critics say his management of the pandemic has been so poor that he has effectively taken himself out of the running to succeed Merkel.
“;He failed in the crisis,”; said Michael Spreng, a prominent conservative political operative and journalist. “;In a crisis, politicians show whether they have what it takes or not and Laschet”;s approach was too slow and full of contradictions.”;
In most cases, a stumbling frontrunner would offer a perfect opportunity for the rest of the field to step in. But Laschet”;s fellow candidates –; Norbert Röttgen, another moderate who heads the German parliament”;s foreign affairs committee, and Friedrich Merz, a fiscally conservative corporate lawyer –; have proved no more popular. Health Minister Jens Spahn, who ran against Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz in 2017 and lost, joined Laschet’s ticket as a kind of unofficial running mate. Some influential conservatives –; including Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of the German parliament and former finance minister –; see Spahn, 40, as the party’s future but he has so far remained in the background.
The CDU”;s weak field has opened the door for Markus Söder, the 53-year-old premier of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU”;s sister party.
Collectively known as “;The Union,”; the two parties form a joint parliamentary group and have traditionally nominated a single candidate for chancellor.
In contrast to Laschet, Söder”;s popularity has surged amid the crisis. A gregarious politician known best for his wacky carnival outfits, Söder, who only took over the CSU last year, has suddenly captured the center right”;s imagination.
While Bavaria has had more COVID-19 infections than any other German region (a fact health experts attribute to the state’s close proximity to Northern Italy), Söder pursued a resolute course to bring the pandemic under control. In Bavaria, where the CSU”;s dominance is often jokingly compared to the popularity of North Korea”;s Communist Party, Söder enjoys an approval rating of nearly 90 percent.
In the rest of Germany, he ranks second only to Merkel. Among the prospective conservative candidates for chancellor, Söder leads the field by a wide margin. Nearly two-thirds of Germans view him as a suitable chancellor, according to a recent survey, up from just 30 percent in March. Merz finished second with 31 percent, followed by Laschet and Röttgen.
While Söder has yet to throw his hat in the ring, he”;s done little to hide his interest.
Last week, he hosted Merkel at a picturesque castle in Bavaria for a carefully choreographed official visit that produced a wealth of campaign-ready images of the towering Nuremberg native with the chancellor at his side.
Der Spiegel, the German weekly, also recently put a smiling Söder on its cover, declaring he has “;excellent chances”; to succeed Merkel.
The question is whether Söder is little more than the conservatives’ shiny new toy, who on closer inspection will soon lose his luster, just like the other erstwhile front-runners Merz, Kramp-Karrenbauer and Laschet.
Though the CDU has twice allowed a CSU man to serve as the alliance”;s standard-bearer when the party doubted its own leader”;s prospects (the first time in lieu of Helmut Kohl in 1979 and the second instead of Merkel in 2002), the Union lost both elections.
That may seem an unlikely outcome at the moment –; the center-right alliance currently leads the field with about 40 percent support –; but in today”;s volatile environment, that could quickly change.
It”;s also far from certain that whoever wins the CDU leadership contest would be willing to step aside for Söder. For Merz and Laschet in particular, the only reason to pursue the CDU’s top job was to have a chance at the chancellorship.
And while Germans may have taken a quick shine to Söder after his solid handling of the coronavirus, most know him no better than they did Laschet. He has no experience at the federal level, much less on the international stage. Popularity aside, the Bavarian would be a risk, especially at a time when the geopolitical challenges facing Germany and Europe have rarely been more daunting.
Der Spiegel captured Germany’s collective unease with a tongue-in-cheek cover they decided not to run last week: a picture of Söder dressed as Marylin Monroe under the headline, "Can he also be chancelorette?"
Söder has about a year to convince Germany that he can.
Read more: politico.com