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After Angela… the trio lining up to replace Merkel

The three candidates for the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union party (CDU), Armin Laschet (C), Friedrich Merz (R) and Norbert Rottgen pose for a photo - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

As the Merkel era nears an end, CATHRIN SCHAER profiles the three candidates vying to take her place at the heart of German, European and global politics

The Angela Merkel era is almost over. The German chancellor, who’s been running the country since 2005, won’t stand for office again and has withdrawn as head of her political party. That is why, later this month, 1,001 Germans from that party will pick a new boss.

During an online conference starting on January 15, party members will only be voting for the next leader of the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU. Still, their decision could have far reaching ramifications for Germany, and Europe.

According to the latest public opinion polls, the CDU and it’s much smaller sister party, the Christian Social Union, or CSU, would get around 35% of the total vote in Germany, if elections were held this week. The Green party is next most popular with 19%.

Whoever heads the CDU is usually also the party’s pick to run for chancellor in federal elections. It is worth bearing in mind that the CDU’s popularity has at least a little to do with Merkel’s own personal popularity during the pandemic – but if the polls don’t change dramatically between now and the election – which will take place this September – whomever delegates pick as party chief is also quite likely to end up running the whole country. (There is a vice chancellor but should Merkel be forced to retire before the September elections – which is not currently part of the plan – the German parliament would come together to select a new leader.)

There are currently three front runners to take Merkel’s old job at the head of the CDU. Friedrich Merz, something of a ghost of the CDU’s past, could be considered the anti-Merkel. The 65-year-old once ran the CDU’s parliamentary faction until he was side-lined by Merkel. After that, he withdrew from political life, working as a corporate lawyer.

Merz is the great hope of the party’s elderly, neo-liberal and conservative. He’s known for being business-friendly, old-fashioned and good at cultural gaffes. Last September, when asked whether he would be concerned if the next German chancellor was gay, he replied that the question of sexual orientation has nothing to do with public life “as long as it is within the bounds of the law and doesn’t involve children”.

Queried on Merz’ comment, German health minister Jens Spahn, a senior member of the CDU and young conservative who also happens to be gay, responded that if the first thing you associate with homosexuality is crime and paedophilia, then somebody should probably ask you why.

Merz also moans a lot. When it was decided that, due to the pandemic, the CDU leadership conference would need to move online, he whined that one of his competitors was behind it. “He needs more time to improve his performance,” Merz tweeted. “I am significantly ahead in all the polls. If things were different, we would certainly have had the vote this year.”

He was talking about rosy-cheeked Armin Laschet, 59, current leader of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Laschet probably has the most experience of all the candidates when it comes to actually running something. He won his state elections last September, beating traditional rivals, the Social Democrats. That, he argued afterwards, was a sign “that the centrist course is the right one.”

Laschet also has a secret-ish weapon: health minister Spahn – the 40-year-old who wanted the CDU’s top job himself at one stage – is supporting Laschet’s bid for leadership. Spahn is popular with voters, although at the moment his fandom waxes and wanes, depending on how many people are sick or vaccinated.

Together, Team Laschet-Spahn are devoted centrists, they enjoy a hashtag or two and are apparently keen on a more modern vision for the CDU. At the beginning of this year, the pair presented their very own ten-point-plan for the CDU’s future. Naturally it came with its own hashtag: #Impulse 2021.

In it, they made some obvious points, such as wanting no truck with the far right, extremists or criminals. But they also advocated for a new ministry of digital affairs and argued that the CDU should reflect the diversity of German society at all levels.

Then finally, there’s Norbert Röttgen, 55, a former federal minister of the environment, current head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee and long-time Merkel loyalist, who surprised everyone when, in February 2020, he announced he too would apply for the CDU’s top job. It was a surprise because after he lost the 2012 state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia badly, and then later his portfolio, he wasn’t exactly prime political property.

At one stage, it looked like Röttgen didn’t stand a chance. But the latest polls suggest that he and Merz are now in the lead, with both party members and the general public liking them more than Laschet.

Röttgen is considered a centrist among the centrists, perched pragmatically between Laschet, the comparative liberal, and Merz, the arch-conservative. He has gone so far as to say that, when it comes to the federal elections, he would want to run the best candidate for chancellor even if, he has conceded, it might not be him.

Local pundits are suggesting this might in fact be Markus Söder, 54, the increasingly popular leader of the CSU, a closet conservative whose personal ratings have rocketed up during the pandemic.

Supporting Söder for the chancellor’s job would be an unusual move for the CDU, something that has only happened twice before. Both past CSU chancellor candidates lost. Still, the choice of a chancellor contender is at least a month away, possibly longer.

Until then, there’s an unexpected upside to contemplating a potential Söder candidacy: the Bavarian politician really likes to dress up for carnivals, making this the perfect opportunity to prove that German politics isn’t always as dull as the recent televised debate between Merz, Laschet and Röttgen, where they more or less said mostly the same thing and agreed with one another.

While we wait for Merkel’s successor, just bring out the pictures of Söder dressed as a giant green Shrek, Marilyn Monroe, a member of Kiss or – please! – Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. We Germans are here for it.

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