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 most robust economy is unusually, and for some, worryingly, 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 would 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, her party, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria, have neither chosen a leader nor chancellor candidate.
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, but the elections will also see 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, mainly due to the extraordinary circumstances amid the pandemic and outstanding critical 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 the 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 could not 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. Furthermore, others demanded a general overhaul of party strategy and personnel, thereby putting pressure on Angela Merkel to step down.
Shortly after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Germany and shook Europe, which required Chancellor Merkel’s leadership qualities domestically and through the Council of the European Union’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2020. Merkel’s capable handling of the pandemic has lifted the CDU’s poll ratings while silencing her resignation demands.
CDU candidates (clockwise from top left): Friedrich Merz, Jens Spahn, Norbert Röttgen and Armin Laschet.
Who comes next for the Christian Democrats?
One thousand one delegates will decide amongst three candidates for CDU leadership in January. Like the vote in 2018, it will be a decision about the party’s strategic direction. 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 to attract 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 relaunch his own campaign, speculation increased whether he should run despite rising popularity internally and high approval ratings in the country.
In January, Armin Laschet’s main CDU rival will be Friedrich Merz, who is campaigning again for the 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 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. LikeMerz, Röttgen was released from a previous position by Merkel, in his case as environment minister in 2012, and 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 CDU chair’s contendersin both respects. Moreover, polling indicates that Markus Söder is the only CDU/CSU politician Germans consider fit for the chancellery, raising the questions of 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.
(Left to right): Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
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 show strong unity and a clear profile og society’s the key issues 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 delegatedvotes than Habeck’s 90%.