It’s over for Angela Merkel and her winning coalition
JULIET SAMUEL. 16 January 2021 • 6:00am
The Merkel era is ending – no really, this time, it is. It was meant to be winding up already, but Angela Merkel’s chosen successor, installed as her party’s leader in 2018, never really stepped up to the plate, and the pandemic has sent Mrs Merkel’s approval rating back up to all-time highs. “Mutti” has promised to retire, however, and today her CDU party will choose a new replacement, who will have a strong chance of becoming the new German chancellor after national elections in September.
There are three candidates and they are all middle-aged men from North Rhine-Westphalia. Armin Laschet is Ms Merkel’s preferred successor and the continuity candidate, but he polls appallingly with voters. Friedrich Merz, a German Mitt Romney-type and former BlackRock executive who blew his chance in 2018, is running again. He tends to be the preferred candidate of non-German rightists, who like his pro-business, non-CDU establishment vibe, but having seen the guy speak, I’d say he has about as much appeal as a wooden ice lolly.
The third is Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, who is a centrist domestically and sound on foreign policy (pragmatic on Brexit, tough on China and Russia). In theory, the winner could still be pushed out of the race for the chancellorship by the victor of a parallel contest being held by the CDU’s Bavarian allied party, the CSU, but the opportunity will be theirs to lose.
In the end, as with most leadership contests, the individuals’ policy differences are likely to be blunted by the exigencies of being in power. The biggest change could instead be the fragmentation of the impregnable electoral coalition built by Ms Merkel during her 16 years at the top. As the Centre for European Reform points out, the chancellor has simultaneously managed to draw outsized support from conservatives, centrists, greens, women and descendants of migrants. But her successor will not be given the benefit of the doubt by most of these groups and will have to prioritise.
With the anti-nuke, pro-EU Green Party now the CDU’s main rival, Ms Merkel’s party has to decide whether to keep up her strategy of hogging the centre ground or move rightwards. Either way, the net result will be a less stable German chancellor relying on a narrower political base at home.