German election 2021: who will succeed Angela Merkel?

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On Sunday 26th September, Germans will elect a new chancellor.

From a British perspective, Angela Merkel’s Germany can seem a peculiar place. It is a land whose leader has not only been able to set her own departure date, but also stick to it, a country where the ruling party used to campaign with the slogan “No experiments” and a nation which mostly cleaves to a predictable kind of politics, shunning melodrama.

Yet when Mrs Merkel announced three years ago that she would not seek re-election, a unique contest emerged to succeed her. Not since the founding father of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, has a chancellor chosen not to solicit another term in office: a fact which not only proves Mrs Merkel’s dominance, but also fuelled a race which has for many months appeared wide open – perhaps the most unpredictable election for decades.

Mr Laschet was supposed to be Mrs Merkel’s heir apparent

Opinion polls have been volatile, to say the least. On July 15th, at the time of the disastrous floods in Germany, Mrs Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) commanded an extensive lead in the race, polling at 29 percent in comparison to the Greens, at 19 percent, and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), at a meagre 16 percent. Yet the mood has since shifted, with the latest data putting the SPD in the lead at 26 percent, followed by the CDU at 21 percent and the Greens, now all but out of the contest for the chancellery, at 16 percent.

The CDU, allied with its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is used to electoral success: it has held the chancellorship for 52 of the 72 years of the republic’s existence. More recently, though, the CDU had been polling superbly for the upcoming election. That was until Armin Laschet was announced as its candidate for chancellor.

Mr Laschet was supposed to be Mrs Merkel’s heir apparent, endorsed by the chancellor herself. But his campaign has misfired spectacularly. He got off to a bad start in April, emphasising change when what Germans really wanted was continuity. But it was in July when Mr Laschet’s prospect of winning office took a dismal downturn.

After the devastating floods which hit parts of NRW, he was caught on camera laughing as Germany’s president made a sincere speech in a largely demolished town. This seems to have fuelled a prevailing view of Mr Laschet as an unserious, blithe and lacklustre candidate, without any of the poise or astuteness of Mrs Merkel.

There’s undoubtedly still a small chance of success the CDU, but for a party in such a good position just a few months ago, having to follow Mrs Merkel out of office would be a biblical defeat.

Mr Scholz has seen a huge surge in support during the election campaign

Like Armin Laschet, Olaf Scholz, 62, is an experienced politician having held several senior positions within government. As the SPD’s candidate, he is currently German finance minister and deputy chancellor. Unlike Mr Laschet, however, Mr Scholz has seen a huge surge in support during the election campaign, effectively positioning himself as a safe pair of hands and Mrs Merkel’s true heir.

During the pandemic, Mr Scholz orchestrated the €750 emergency funding package to assist German businesses and workers and has largely been praised for his performance. His subdued public demeanour would in many countries be an electoral liability, but in Germany, it projects an aura of competence and calm which reminds many voters of the woman he has worked alongside for so many years.

Indeed, for someone who often appears rather insipid, Mr Scholz has star power. In sharp contrast to Mr Laschet, he polls far ahead of his party and has been the powerhouse of its campaign, not putting a foot wrong. Mr Scholz has even posed for photographs holding his hands in front of him in the diamond shape so synonymous with the chancellor it has become known as the “Merkel rhombus”.

But Mr Scholz’s supporters say that, unlike Mrs Merkel, he has ideas for Germany’s future, too, including how to transition to a carbon-neutral economy while maintaining export prowess.

Clearly, the SPD deems modelling Mrs Merkel as the key to success. After all, the chancellor’s sober, unflappable style is the kind of leadership Germans have warmed to. But despite her would-be successors trying so hard to embody continuity, the almost perplexing reality after 16 years is simple: change is coming.

Image: (Aleph) via Creative Commons.

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