FILE Photo: Angela Merkel (REUTERS)(Reuters Photo)
FILE Photo: Angela Merkel (REUTERS)(Reuters Photo)

Meet German chancellor Angela Merkel’s potential successors

1,001 delegates from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will pick a new leader at a virtual congress on Saturday.
Bloomberg
PUBLISHED ON JAN 13, 2021 11:20 AM IST

Germany’s political future will start to take shape when 1,001 delegates from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union pick a new leader at a virtual congress on Saturday.

The winner of a tight three-way race will be in prime position to run as the conservative bloc’s chancellor candidate, but there are two other contenders who might do better with voters. The messy process will set up a tense few months for Germany’s strongest political group.

Here’s a look at the top contenders from the CDU and its CSU sister party to succeed Merkel after the Sept. 26 national election:

Armin Laschet, the Continuity Candidate

A Merkel ally and defender of her migration policy, Laschet has governed Germany’s most-populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia since he ousted the Social Democrats in 2017. That gives him a significant power base as head of the CDU’s biggest regional chapter.

The 59-year-old is a moderate committed to European integration and the most likely to protect and foster Merkel’s legacy. However, his political star has faded during the coronavirus pandemic. NRW is one of the hardest-hit states and his initial, more laissez-faire approach was badly received by some voters.

In the ruthless Berlin political arena, Laschet is untested. If he wins Saturday’s vote, his supporters are hoping he doesn’t wilt in the same way as a party colleague who struggled with the transition from the state level to the federal stage: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Merkel’s handpicked successor took over as party chief in 2018 but faltered under the pressure and decided to step aside.

Friedrich Merz, Merkel’s Nemesis

At 65 the oldest of the candidates, Merz is a long-time Merkel rival and has portrayed himself as a challenger to the CDU establishment she dominates. A champion of the party’s conservative, pro-industrial wing, moderates view him as a relic of a back-slapping, old-boy’s club that belongs in the past.

After having his political career eclipsed by the chancellor, Merz stormed back onto the scene in 2018 in an attempt to take control of the party, only to be thwarted in a close contest by Kramp-Karrenbauer. A corporate lawyer, he returned temporarily to his job at BlackRock Inc. before mounting his latest bid for Germany’s top political post.

Merz -- who chaired the CDU/CSU’s parliamentary group from 2000 to 2002 -- has the backing of the party’s youth wing and is relatively popular among the CDU rank and file. However, the fact that he is not widely embraced by the broader electorate could scupper his chances.

Norbert Roettgen, the Rebel Returned

The chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee has the dubious distinction of being the only cabinet member whom Merkel fired outright.

A former protege of the chancellor, Roettgen’s ambition got the better of him when he secured the leadership of the CDU in NRW in 2010 -- notably by defeating Laschet. But he failed badly against the SPD in a regional vote two years later and refused to give up his post as environment minister at the national level. That act of hubris triggered his ouster.

In the years since, the 55-year-old moderate has built a reputation as something of a party rebel. He led a revolt among CDU lawmakers against Merkel’s tolerance of China’s Huawei Technologies Co. and disagreed with her backing for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Germany and Russia.

While a long shot, he could be a compromise candidate who looks like a break with Merkel without a hard shift to the right. In the weeks leading up to the contest, he has mounted a savvy media campaign that appears to have boosted his chances of pulling off an upset.

Markus Soeder, the Bavarian Wildcard

Bavaria Premier Soeder, head of the CDU’s sister party in the prosperous southern state, is consistently ranked as one of Germany’s most popular politicians.

That means he could be the conservative bloc’s most potent weapon for September’s national vote, although he has repeatedly said he intends to stay put. His chances could increase if Laschet or Roettgen win, while Merz would almost certainly want the chancellor candidacy for himself.

The fact remains, however, that only two CSU chiefs have contested the chancellorship since World War II and both lost.

Once a party rabble-rouser, 54-year-old Soeder has morphed into a dominant leader of his home state, becoming premier in 2018 and CSU chairman a year later.

He improved his standing among conservatives at the CDU party conference in 2018, when he brought delegates to their feet with a punchy speech that overshadowed Kramp-Karrenbauer’s weaker performance. He has also been a high-profile presence during the pandemic, consistently pushing for tougher restrictions.

Jens Spahn, the Young Pretender

Health Minister Spahn removed himself from the CDU leadership race early on and threw his backing behind Laschet. Since then, what many voters perceive as his competent handling of the coronavirus pandemic has burnished his reputation. He even overtook Merkel in one ranking published in late December.

After gauging support among party officials for a possible chancellorship bid, Spahn has said he currently has no plans to run.

The openly gay 40-year-old’s ambitions were clear when he put his hat in the ring in 2018 as a candidate for CDU leader with nothing to lose. Although he finished third, he got much of the positive media attention.

A standard-bearer of the party’s right wing, Spahn made a name for himself with attacks on Merkel over her handling of the euro crisis and the influx of migrants in 2015. Perceived problems with Germany’s rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine could hinder his progress.


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