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In 2021, the Merkel era ends. Who comes next?

With general elections in 2021, Angela Merkel will be replaced as German Chancellor after being in office since 2005. Towards the end of her tenure, she once again guided Germany and the EU through a crisis. Therefore, all eyes will be on her successor. However, without a clear favourite and various coalitions possible, politics in Europe’s strongest economy is unusually open.

Amid a second strict lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic remains the overarching theme as Germany rings in 2021. With high uncertainty about the pandemic and its economic impact, the country faces a super election year with six state elections and federal elections. Since Angela Merkel announced she will not run again for a fifth term as chancellor, the new year also starts with significant uncertainty in the political landscape.

This is unusual after Merkel’s sixteen years in power, especially since her party, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has neither chosen a leader nor chancellor candidate for the CDU/CSU general election ticket, together with its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria.

With Merkel not on the ballot again, the race for the chancellorship in September will be the first without the incumbent since 1949. Not only is the sitting chancellor not running again, the elections will also see chancellor candidates from three different parties for the first time. In addition to the CDU/CSU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens (Alliance 90/The Greens) will also nominate a candidate in 2021.

With the Greens trailing only the CDU/CSU in the polls going into the election year, there will likely be an unprecedented duel for the strongest party. Since the first Bundestag elections in 1949, this was decided exclusively between the CDU/CSU and SPD. Furthermore, the SPD announced for the first time that it is willing to enter a left-wing coalition with the Left Party (Die Linke) and the Greens at the federal level.  

Although a CDU/CSU-Greens coalition is widely expected, uncertainty is unusually high going into 2021, particularly due to the extraordinary circumstances amid the pandemic and outstanding key decisions within the main political parties.

Merkel’s pandemic-induced resurgence

The super election year 2021 begins with a digital CDU congress on January 16 that will decide the new party leader and likely successor of Angela Merkel in the chancellery. The internal election was postponed twice in 2020 due to the pandemic, following Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s decision in February not to run for chancellor and resign as CDU leader.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, widely known by her initials as AKK, appeared to become Merkel’s successor when she was voted CDU leader in 2018. Earlier, Chancellor Merkel resigned from party leadership following poor state election results. However, Merkel’s attempt to split the chancellorship and party leadership failed as AKK was not able to stamp her authority on the CDU/CSU.

When AKK announced her intention to step down, the CDU was polling at only 26%. Health minister Jens Spahn called it the biggest crisis in CDU history while others demanded a general overhaul of party strategy and personnel, thereby putting pressure on Angela Merkel to step down as chancellor as well.

Yet, shortly after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Germany and shook Europe which required Chancellor Merkel’s leadership qualities both domestically and through the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2020. Merkel’s capable handling of the pandemic has lifted the CDU’s poll ratings while silencing demands for her to resign.

Who comes next for the Christian Democrats?

During January’s digital party congress, 1001 delegates will decide between three candidates for CDU leadership. Similar to the vote in 2018, it will be a decision about the strategic direction of the party. At the time, AKK, as Merkel’s protégée, stood for continuity. In 2021, this course is represented by Armin Laschet, prime minister of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, who saw his profile rise as a capable crisis manager during the pandemic. Although a moderate, Laschet aims toattract votes from all CDU factions by running with the conservative Health Minister Jens Spahn as his deputy. Spahn ran for party leadership himself two years ago but decided to join Armin Laschet’s bid in February. Since then, Spahn has been in the public spotlight as health minister during the pandemic. Although he has ruled out to launch his own campaign again, speculation increased whether he should run nonetheless amid rising popularity internally and high approval ratings in the country.

Armin Laschet’s main CDU rival in January will be Friedrich Merz, who campaigns again for party leadership after a narrow defeat in the run-off against AKK in 2018. In contrast to Laschet, Merz seeks to break with the Merkel-era in favour of a more conservative agenda. Merz is a former political rival of Chancellor Merkel who replaced him as chair of the parliamentary group in 2002, which was followed by Merz’s gradual withdrawal from politics.

Over the years he has been an outspoken critic of her efforts to move the CDU to the political centre. As a socially conservative and economically liberal, Merz enjoys high popularity within the CDU base. At times polarising and provocative, Merz accused the CDU establishment of using the pandemic as a pretext to damage his candidacy. His allegations included that the party congress was postponed a second time in December only to undermine his lead in the polls.

The third candidate for CDU leadership is centrist Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee. Although Röttgen is the only candidate with strong foreign policy experience, low name recognition compared to Laschet and Merz make him a long shot in this race. Similar to Merz, Röttgen was released from a previous position by Merkel, in his case as environment minister in 2012, and also intensified his criticism of her in recent years.

A surprise from Bavaria?

The winner of January’s vote is very likely to be the joint chancellor candidate of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the conservative CSU, in the general elections on September 26. As the far larger party, the CDU has fielded their candidate in the past, except for the general elections in 1980 and 2002, both of which were lost. In 2021, another exception is possible since there is widespread speculation that Markus Söder, the CSU leader and prime minister of Bavaria, might also be considering a run for the chancellorship.

Although repeatedly denying that he will run, Söder’s decisive handling of the pandemic saw his approval rating and national profile rise, placing him far ahead of the contenders for the CDU chair in both respects. Moreover, polling indicates that Markus Söder is the only CDU/CSU politician Germans consider fit for the chancellery, therefore raising the questions whether he would be the best candidate to succeed Angela Merkel. Eventually, much will depend on the CDU performance under the newly elected leader in the two state elections in March. After that, it is argued, the CDU/CSU will make a decision.

The Greens’ new claim to power

Since the last general election in 2017, the Green Party saw its polling increase from fifth to second most popular party in Germany, only behind the CDU/CSU. This is in part due to their dynamic centrist co-chairs Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, elected in 2018, as well as due to the intensifying climate debate in Germany. Contrary to the early days as an anti-party movement in the 1980s, the Greens are showing strong unity and have a clear profile on the key issues in society as a progressive, pro-European and pro-environment party.

This fuelled their success in the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, nearly doubling the German vote compared to 2014. Thereby, the Greens have shown that they are increasingly moving into the political centre by attracting all voter segments from leftists to conservatives, especially behind voter fatigue with the CDU/CSU and SPD. As an increasingly centrist party amid an otherwise weakening political centre, the general election in 2021 could boost the Greens to new heights. With representation in ruling coalitions in 11 of Germany’s 16 federal states, the co-chairs made clear during their digital party congress in November that their ambition is to form one on the national level as well.

With consistently high approval ratings, the Greens are for the first time in reach of the chancellery. Therefore, the party will decide at a party congress in spring 2021 whether Habeck or Baerbock will be the chancellor candidate. Robert Habeck is one of the most popular politicians in Germany with government experience as a state minister. Without a prior government role, Annalena Baerbock would be the youngest of all chancellor candidates at age 40 and the only woman in the race. When both were confirmed as co-chairs for the Greens in 2019, Baerbock received 97% of delegate votes compared to Habeck’s 90%. 

Despite ongoing woes, SPD remains hopeful

In August 2020, the Social Democrats already announced their nomination for chancellor candidate. With Olaf Scholz, current finance minister, former labour minister and Hamburg mayor, the SPD chose an experienced and popular politician. Yet, since the announcement, the SPD did not see significant gains in polls, remaining at around 15%. Neither did the SPD benefit from Scholz’s leading role as a crisis manager in the government, whereas the CDU/CSU under Merkel saw a pandemic-induced boost.

Despite low approval ratings, the SPD remains confident it can win the general election in September. By promoting an experienced alternative to Merkel, the Social Democrats hope for former Merkel voters, especially if the CDU/CSU leans more conservative under new leadership. Moreover, the leftist SPD co-chairs, elected in December 2019, look to change the political course of the party. Therefore, they are showing limited interest in a new ‘grand coalition’ with the CDU/CSU but instead favour a left-wing alliance with the Greens and Left Party.

However, Olaf Scholz, considerably more centrist, has shown scepticism about forming a coalition with the Left Party, a red line for the SPD in the past. Amid the emergence of the Greens as Germany’s mainstream left-wing party, SPD aims to regain voters by introducing a clear political agenda during their party congress in May.

Unusual openness in German politics raises questions and concerns

Based on polls ten months prior to the general election, only two majority coalitions are plausible. The first would be a repeat of the current ‘grand coalition’ of CDU/CSU and SPD. However, this is neither preferred by the parties nor by the population. The second, a ‘black-green’ coalition of CDU/CSU and Greens, is considered the most likely of the possible outcomes, especially since it has become increasingly commonplace on the state level and is favoured by German voters. 

Yet, there are still significant polling shifts expected in the coming months due to open questions around the chancellor candidates, with no clear favourites for both the CDU/CSU and Greens. Moreover, voter sentiment will also depend on the social and economic impact of the pandemic and the government’s management up to the election.  

For the current leader in the polls, the CDU/CSU, the question arises whether the party can maintain its comfortable lead under a new chancellor candidate, or if Merkel’s popularity, strengthened by her crisis management, has been the difference maker in the approval ratings.

Against this backdrop, the Greens even have the chance to become the strongest party in September, especially considering they were once head-to-head in the polls with the CDU/CSU at 26% in July 2019. Even in second place, the Greens could still appoint the chancellor by forming a left-wing government with the SPD and Left Party, or with a ‘traffic light coalition’ with SPD (red) and the liberal Free Democrats – FDP (yellow). Both coalitions already exist on the state level but would still require considerable shifts among the electorate.

For the past sixteen years, Chancellor Merkel has been an anchor of political stability in Germany and European Union. During her tenure, she was instrumental in managing the 2008 financial crisis, the European debt crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. She was even considered the ‘leader of the free world’ by some commentators following President Trump’s election in 2016, leaving her successor with big shoes to fill. Consequently, there are concerns among Germany’s neighbours and beyond whether the country’s major policy positions will change following the end of the Merkel era. The super election year will provide answers. It starts on January 16.

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