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Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: Which Duo Will Replace Merkel?

Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: Which Duo Will Replace Merkel?
 Luc de Barochez
Journalist at Le Point

In Germany, Covid-19’s effect on the image of political leaders becomes all the more important in the context of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s succession, which depends on both the leadership of the CDU and on the general elections scheduled for next year. 

The potential candidates have seen their chances of success variously affected by the crisis: this is what Luc de Barochez, editorialist at Le Point based in Frankfurt, a remarkable connoisseur of the mysteries of German politics, explains for us in this fascinating group portrait.

Michel Duclos, Special geopolitics advisor, Editor in Chief of this series


Angela Merkel, the irreplaceable! Head of the German Center-Right from 2002 to 2018, Federal Chancellor since 2005, she has dominated German politics with both hands for so long that it may take two people to fill her shoes: one to lead the government, the other to chair the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The rivalry between the contenders, the electoral machinery and uncertainties mean that it is too early to know who will eventually win. Several probable scenarios are nonetheless emerging. 

One thing is for sure: the final choice will not be Merkel’s. She may be at the height of her art and popularity since the coronavirus crisis, but she has not been able to manage her succession. Her attempt to bring the Saarland's Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as "AKK", to the forefront was unsuccessful. Having taken over the presidency of the CDU in 2018 and appointed to the Ministry of Defense in 2019, AKK was shunned by the leaders of the party, who blamed her for poor performances in regional elections. In February 2020, she announced that she was throwing in the towel. She will step down as head of the CDU at the party congress, which was scheduled for April in Stuttgart but was postponed to December because of the pandemic. Her forfeiting leaves only men in the ring.

A total of five of them are running; the future Chancellor candidate of the Center-Right in the federal elections of September 2021 will be one of them. 

Two are former rivals of Merkel, who are trying to get out of what, within the CDU, is called the "men’s cemetery", the "Männerfriedhof". "There" are all the real or supposed Alpha males that the Chancellor has marginalized during her long career. The first to declare himself is Norbert Röttgen, former Minister of the Environment, who was dismissed in 2012 by the Head of Government. The second is Friedrich Merz, former leader of the parliamentary opposition to Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, ousted by Merkel, who took his place in 2002. For both of them, the race for the succession tastes of rehabilitation, if not revenge.

The third declared candidate is, on the contrary, a faithful heir to the Chancellor: Armin Laschet, head of the executive of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous Land in Germany (the Ruhr area and Cologne). Two outsiders remain: the Minister of Health, Jens Spahn, and Bavaria's Minister-President, Markus Söder. A total of five of them are running; the future Chancellor candidate of the Center-Right in the federal elections of September 2021 will be one of them. Angela Merkel, 66, has ruled out running for a fifth term, although the German Basic Law (Constitution) places no limits on her. With 16 years in the chancellery, next year she will equal the record held by Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of reunification. She intends to leave politics with a sense of accomplishment.

Succession will mark a break. The five candidates differ from Merkel not only in their gender, but also because they come from the west of the country. The Germans of the former GDR, underrepresented in national political life, had the satisfaction of having one of their own in the chancellery. This will no longer be the case. The contenders of 2020 have the typical profile of the West German politician, that of a Helmut Kohl or Gerhard Schröder when they came to power: a provincial politician, a pure product of the federal system, attached to his or her local roots, with little international experience. All of them are Atlanticists by reason and pro-Europeans at heart; none of them are sovereignists. All are convinced that France is Germany's main partner in the European Union and that European integration must be pursued. They all share the traditional German doctrine on the necessary fiscal discipline.

Only the 55 year-old Norbert Röttgen has experience in international relations. He has been chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee since 2014. A lawyer, he is the vice-president of Atlantik-Brücke, a Berlin-based association that promotes Germany's ties with the United States. In the Bundestag, he spoke out against the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Europe and opposed the aims of Chinese electronics giant Huawei on 5G networks in Germany. But due to a lack of support in the party apparatus, he has the least chance of being elected. The real game is played between the other four.

For them, Covid-19 has turned things around. At the beginning of the year, observers predicted Armin Laschet to be the winner. This 59-year-old Catholic, embodying Merkel's centrist line, could have been elected with eyes closed as president of the CDU. It would have then been simple child's play to be nominated as a right-wing candidate and then to move to the Federal Chancellery in 2021. But alas, his messy handling of the health crisis in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia put a damper on his candidacy. He defends himself by saying that he was unlucky, as his region was affected more than others in Germany. This doesn’t explain the many missteps he made, like confining the population too late. Forced by the other Länders to fall in line, he again played against time during the deconfinement by pressing to speed up the return to normal while concerns were still high.

A few weeks later, a major outbreak of Covid-19 in the largest slaughterhouse in Europe took him by surprise. His clumsy communication, when he defected by blaming the persistent spread of the pandemic on "Romanians and Bulgarians" employed by the company, exposed him to criticism. All in all, his meagre performance during the pandemic was poorly rated. In a Kantar poll carried out in July 2020, it received only 18% favourable opinions, compared to 67% for Angela Merkel or 57% for the other regional contender, Markus Söder.

Laschet could embody continuity like no other, at a time when the line followed by Merkel is popular with the public. 

Yet Laschet could embody continuity like no other, at a time when the line followed by Merkel is popular with the public. No one defended the chancellor more than he did during the 2015 migrant crisis. His Christian-humanist vision permeates his entire political conception. The son of a coalmine steiger who became an elementary school principal, and a housewife, Armin Laschet still lives in the parish of Aachen, where he was baptized and later an altar boy. He began his career as a journalist for a newspaper of the Catholic Church. A promoter of dialogue with Islam, a craftsman of a "liberal and open to the world" Germany, attentive to social issues, Laschet was the first Minister of Integration of a German state. "We must make it clear that the CDU's trademark is not conservatism but the fact of putting the Christian conception of the human being above all else," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2018.

His rival Friedrich Merz also suffered from the pandemic, not only because he was infected with the virus, but also because without an executive function, he was unable to put his managerial skills to the test. Representing the ordoliberal wing of the CDU, Merz, 64, a Catholic, is the oldest of the candidates but also the one with the most economic skills. During the nine years he stayed out of politics (2009-2018), he was a corporate lawyer, banker and then chairman of the German subsidiary of the New York-based BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager. A millionaire, he himself pilots his small twin-engine aircraft. A proponent of free trade and deregulation, author of a book entitled Daring more capitalism (Mehr Kapitalismus wagen, 2010, untranslated), Merz launched a popular slogan in the early 2000s by proposing to simplify the sprawling German tax system, so that a tax return would be short enough to "fit on a beer coaster". He was one of the first political leaders to defend the concept of "Leitkultur", "leading culture", implying that immigrants, in his words, "must accept our morals, practices and habits"

In 2018, Friedrich Merz failed against AKK, with a very respectable 48 per cent of the delegates' votes at the congress.Will he have a better chance this time?

Merkel ousting him from the parliamentary group presidency in 2002 was "the exemplary story of a talented but vain and arrogant man who underestimated a stubborn, intelligent and modest woman," summed up former CDU election strategist Michael Spreng. His attempt to return through the front door by running for the party leadership in 2018 failed against AKK, with a very respectable 48 per cent of the delegates' votes at the congress. Will he have a better chance this time? He does remain popular among older Christian Democrat activists, especially in business circles

Markus Söder, however, intends to shake up his plans. The 53-year-old Bavarian has gained credibility since he shone during the pandemic. His firmness and determination have been praised. Luck worked in his favour as he held the rotating presidency of the Conference of the Länder during the crisis, which enabled him to make his mark at national level by effectively supporting Merkel. The popular tabloid Bild Zeitung renamed him the "Kronprinz" (Crown Prince). He swears that "(his) future is in Bavaria" but nobody believes him. In July, the monthly barometer of the public television station ZDF had a thunderous effect: 64% of Germans questioned recognized him as a chancellor (+34 points since March), compared with meagre scores for Merz (31%), Laschet (19%) and Röttgen (14%)

The die has not been cast however, because Söder has two handicaps. Firstly, he comes from a region so attached to its singularities that other Germans can hardly imagine being governed by a Bavarian - even though Söder, a Protestant from Nuremberg, does not come from the historic, Catholic heart of Bavaria. Secondly, he is not a member of the CDU and therefore cannot be elected as party president. Since 2019, he has chaired the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's exclusively Bavarian sister party, whose members in the Bundestag form a joint parliamentary group with those of the CDU. Both parties always present a single candidate for the chancellery. Söder is therefore expected to reach an agreement with the CDU chairman to be elected in December that the CDU chairman will agree to hand over the post of chancellor candidate to Söder. It is not a foregone conclusion. The two previous ones are hardly encouraging. In 2002, Angela Merkel agreed to step aside in front of the Bavarian Edmund Stoiber but the latter bit the dust in front of Gerhard Schröder. In 1980, Helmut Kohl let Franz-Josef Strauss take the lead against Helmut Schmidt but he failed.

Can Söder overcome these obstacles? With his 1.94 m and athletic build, he embodies strength as much as Merkel personifies serenity. Never at rest, overactive, Söder thrives on confrontation. "He can do politics in a very brutal way," observes journalist Nikolaus Neumaier, who has been following him for a long time for the Bavarian public radio. Perseverance is also a quality he emphasises. A tennis player since his youth, Söder told the periodical Tennismagazin last year that this sport has taught him "that you must never give in because you can always win in the end, even when you don't see how at the moment".

If he wants to succeed, Söder will have to push for the CDU congress in December to choose a party leader willing to give him the chancellor's chair.

A liberal on economy, Söder has spoken out in favour of facilitating layoffs and criticized the introduction of a minimum wage. In 2018, he had a crucifix hung in every Bavarian public institution, seeing it not as a religious sign but as "an expression of our Bavarian identity and way of life". The Catholic Church had a hard time seeing the cross of Christ brought down to the same level as the Lederhosen and beer steins, but he persevered. Outside Bavaria, he was best known for his spectacular carnival costumes - he was seen in drag, dressed up as Gandalf, Shrek, Homer Simpson - but he became a national figure when in 2015 he spoke out against Angela Merkel's refusal to close the border to migrants. Using a populist vocabulary, he denounced "tourist asylum" - an expression he now rejects - and refused to invite the chancellor to his campaign rallies during the Bavarian elections of 2018, preferring to display himself with the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz. But he has since reconciled with the head of government, whom he invited in July to a meeting of his Bavarian cabinet in the grandiose Hall of Mirrors at Herrenchiemsee Palace, the Bavarian Versailles.

If he wants to succeed, Söder will have to push for the CDU congress in December to choose a party leader willing to give him the chancellor's chair. Could it be Jens Spahn? The young and popular 40-year-old health minister still has his future ahead of him. For the time being (September 2020), this outsider has not yet presented his candidacy for the presidency of the party. Before the pandemic, he had announced that he would support Laschet. But his mentor, Bundestag speaker Wolfgang Schäuble, one of the most influential voices within the CDU, encouraged him to come out of the woodwork by praising his leadership qualities and his "extraordinary talent" in an interview published on July 14 by the weekly Die Zeit. "Spahn has the will to power," Schäuble observed.

Jens Spahn, who defines himself as a "liberal-conservative" and a "patriot open to the world" is a special case in the CDU. 

Jens Spahn, who defines himself as a "liberal-conservative" and a "patriot open to the world" is a special case in the CDU. Elected Member of Parliament at only 22 years of age in 2002, and constantly re-elected since then, he claims his homosexuality while displaying his Catholic faith. He was one of the first in Germany to take advantage of the legalization of gay marriage in 2017 to marry his partner, a journalist. "For me the most important thing is to be clear with myself, with my faith and with my God," he said in 2018 on Christian radio Domradio. "The good Lord probably had a plan for me to be as I am".

Provocatively, the Minister of Health says things that the Liberal left is outraged at, but that go down well with the Conservative electorate. He sometimes has to row backwards, as when he explained that Germany should limit social spending to increase the military budget, or that the retirement age should be postponed to 69. But he has the approval of activists when he said that one should speak German in Germany, that Germany should be "demanding" with its immigrants, that Islam should adapt to Germany and not the other way round. And he goes to the front without hesitation. Merkel rarely talks about her political opponents, preferring to concentrate on the substance of the issues. But Spahn never misses a good fight. A former deputy to Schäuble at the Ministry of Finance, he has espoused his conservative line on budgetary issues. "We don't need a euro finance minister, nor European unemployment insurance, and even less debt mutualisation," he said in 2018.

If Spahn agreed to ally himself with Söder, their duo would be well positioned to solve the strategic problem of German Christian Democracy, which is to contain, on its right, the national-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). But the couple would not necessarily be in the best position to form a centrist government coalition with the Greens, which electoral arithmetic might force the CDU/CSU to do in next year's elections. By then, the CDU will have made its choice, after an internal struggle that will bring the Merkel era to an end for good. 


Illustration : David MARTIN for l'Institut Montaigne

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