Berlin, Germany – As Angela Merkel prepares to step off the stage after 15 years as Chancellor, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has yet to choose who will lead the party in the September federal election, a move that will have significant implications for the future of Germany and the European Union.
With attempts to hold an in-person conference frustrated by coronavirus restrictions, this Friday the CDU will convene a two-day online summit to determine its next president who will describe the party’s direction and identity after Merkel.
Riding on a wave of support that emerged early in the pandemic, the CDU, along with its sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), will almost certainly lead the next government.
According to a recent poll, they overtake the Greens in second place.
In the running, Friedrich Merz, Armin Laschet and Norbert Röttgen – a trio of similar figures, all men in their fifties or sixties, born in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).
But all three have struggled to gain popularity with the German public, and senior party officials suggest the winner will not be guaranteed to run for Chancellor in September, as the CDU and CSU could pick a another candidate later in the year.
Frontrunners scramble for support
Laschet is the closest to a candidate for Merkel’s continuity, ready to continue her signature brand of balanced fiscal rectitude with a more liberal social vision.
As Minister President of NRW, Germany’s most populous state, he presented himself as an experienced and knowledgeable governor committed to European integration, who will retain the party’s position at the center.
Merz, however, is without excuse in his desire to break Merkel’s mold and renew the traditional social conservatism of the CDU, coupled with a free trade and pro-business agenda. Sidelined when he became Chancellor in the early 2000s, he left politics for almost 10 years, earning millions as a corporate lawyer and serving on the board of BlackRock Germany. .
In recent months, he has drawn criticism after appearing to link homosexuality and pedophilia in an interview, and suggesting in a televised debate that migrants are responsible for an increase in unemployment in Germany.
“[On] migration policy and internal security, it follows a fairly restrictive course, ”Ursula Münch, professor of political science at the University of Munich, told Al Jazeera.
“Merz claims to recover these voters for the CDU which went to the AfD [Alternative For Germany]. But on the contrary, he will lose these more liberal voters, undecided between the Greens and the CDU… Röttgen and Laschet would probably have more success with this group.
Foreign policy expert Röttgen started the race as a marginal candidate, but has climbed steadily in his opinion polls with his calls to modernize the party and make it younger, more feminine and more environmentally friendly. . He also wants Berlin to take a tougher line against the Chinese and Russian governments.
Merz leads the polls among CDU supporters, although the 1,001 party officials eligible to vote this weekend may weigh his popularity within the party against his responsibilities outside – he has little appeal among voters centrists and presents potential difficulties in a coalition with the Greens, the obvious choice to form a government after the elections.
Spahn, Soder outside the candidates for chancellor
Notably absent from the poll are two of the party’s most popular figures – young German health minister Jens Spahn and Markus Soder, head of Bavaria and the CSU – who may still have a way to the chancellery.
“If this is a very narrow electoral victory for the president, and if the public and in particular the media, doubts the capabilities of the newly elected candidate as a candidate for chancellor, then it could happen,” Münch said.
Spahn built a solid reputation during the first wave of the pandemic, although his popularity declined somewhat amid the slow rollout of the vaccine in Germany.
His promised support for Laschet hasn’t totally ruled him out, as media claim behind the scenes he has courted support for a candidate for chancellor if his public stature continues to surpass that of Laschet.
Likewise, Soder has disowned any desire to lead Germany, but he is perceptive and has a propensity for opportunistic reinvention. He should, however, overcome a reluctance to lead CSU politicians, who have been defeated in the past two attempts.
Merkel’s broad personal appeal was crucial to her political longevity, drawing Germans from far beyond the traditional CDU base of rural conservatives, devotees and small business owners.
Sustaining this coalition will be a big challenge for his successor in the coming months, which could not be expected to achieve his approval rating, which peaked at 70% last year. .
“The new leadership must focus on the issue of integrating voters from the Social Democrats on the one hand, and the lost voters who went to the AfD on the other,” said Nils Diederich, professor of political Sciences. at the Free University of Berlin.
“The party needs to present itself as the real ‘Volkspartei’ – a party that tries to integrate different social groups and the interests of the economy, [as well as addressing] social issues. “
Merkel’s final act
Stepping out of Merkel’s shadow will be particularly difficult following a strong final act in her career, spurred by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
At home, she ditched her fixation on balanced budgets and, along with SPD Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, has spent billions on workers’ leave schemes and business aid, while urging regional leaders to lock down decisively infections.
At the EU level, she worked with French President Emmanuel Macron to push through a € 750 billion ($ 913 billion) recovery plan against the intransigence of Poland and Hungary, and secured a new trade agreement to strengthen the Union’s economic ties with China.
“The way 2021 is shaping up, there won’t be months without major foreign policy decisions to be made and crises to deal with, so all of them should be set in motion”, Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute , told Al Jazeera.
“They will have to gradually develop their own stature and their own way of doing things. But Merkel had to do it too, in 2005. When she came to power, people didn’t really take her seriously.
The CDU leadership vote will not definitively settle the question of who Merkel’s successor will be, but it will provide a large part of the German public with a first opportunity to seriously reflect on what lies ahead for the party and the country.
“People have not started to turn the page… Especially the voters who voted for Merkel and the CDU because of [her], they haven’t really started to ask, “Who am I going to vote for?” said Benner.