This article is the second part of a two-part series about German politics. The first part can be found here.
By Jonas Reichert
In the aftermath of the crisis around the election of a prime minister in the federal state of Thuringia, the party leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation. As she was Angela Merkel’s chosen successor, her departure ignited an open battle for the leadership and the political course in Germany’s governing party. The outcome will transform Germany’s political landscape in a time when it faces many challenges, especially right-wing terrorism and the rebuild of the society and economy after the Covid-19 pandemic and the recession it triggered.
Kramp-Karrenbauer was elected as a party leader as recently as December 2018. She was prime minister of the tiny federal state of Saarland at the border to France before she became her party’s general secretary in February. This was seen as a move of Chancellor Angela Merkel to groom her as her successor. After Merkel had to give up the party leadership after bad results in two federal elections, Kramp-Karrenbauer defeated the former faction chairman Friedrich Merz and the Minister of Health Jens Spahn. Some months later she also took up the office as Minister of Defense, contradicting previous statements that she did not strive for a cabinet position. After several unsatisfying election results, some parts of the party started questioning her authority and call for her departure.
Her departure opens the race for the party leadership once again. Merkel will not run as a chancellor again after the next election and the CDU head the polls. The new party leader is likely to become Germany’s next chancellor. After some struggles about the time frame of the transition, the current pandemic prevented a quick change. The party leader is supposed to be elected at an extraordinary party convention, which will be scheduled when the epidemiological situation allows for such an assembly.
The first candidate to announce his application was Norbert Röttgen. He is a former chief whip of the CDU faction in the Bundestag and was from 2009 to 2012 the Minister of the Environment. He was sacked from the latter position after facing a vast electoral defeat as a top candidate in a regional election in 2012. Since 2014 he is the chairman of the council for foreign affairs in the Bundestag. His application was surprising as he was not seen as a contender for the leadership previously and as he has no obvious supporters, but polls among CDU members see him anyway as a serious contestant. He has announced that he wants to strengthen the fight against right-wing extremism if he would be elected. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he was criticised for demanding a membership decision about the party leader position during the crisis instead of the standard procedure of a decision of the party convention after the end of the crisis.
The second contender is Armin Laschet, the prime minister of the federal state North Rhine-Westphalia. He is supported by Spahn, who forgoes his application and is supposed to become Laschet’s deputy. He has a conservative view on social politics and campaigns for a Christian Leitkultur (‘guiding culture’), while still being open for religious dialogue. His decisions during the Covid-19 crisis were seen quite ambiguous, as his view to fight the disease with less severe incision of freedom rights was considered by some as too hesitant.
And finally there is, once again, Merz. He re-entered the political stage only in 2018, after leaving politics in 2009 in favour of a career in the private sector. He worked as a corporate lawyer and is a board member in several companies, most prominently BlackRock Germany, an investment management cooperation. He made a fortune at this time. His yearly income is estimated to be above one million Euros. Despite this, he sees himself still as a part of the middle class. He wants to liberalize and deregulate the economy. In his time as a faction leader, he became famous for his plan to simplify the tax system, so that the tax declaration would fit on a coaster. He also campaigns on the promise to win back voters from the right-wing AfD. He wants, therefore, to open the CDU to the right, plans to limit migration and takes a more regressive position on social policy. He was infected by the virus in mid-march and has retreated from the public since then, but was before reprimanded by party officials for continuing his campaign in the face of the looming pandemic.
When it comes to a chancellor candidate, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU, which forms a common faction in the Bundestag, also want to have a say. Their party leader Markus Söder, who is also the Bavarian prime minister, has the ambition to become the chancellor candidate as well. Söder is a clear conservative politician and is wary about immigration. His first decree in office was the order that all state agencies have to have a cross in their entrance area, a policy that was heavily battled by an unlikely coalition of secularists and the churches. On environmental policies, he meanwhile follows a much more progressive program, especially after the rise of the Greens in the last regional election. While he rejects all regulations on the car industry and car usage, he took over a citizen covet about the protection of bees and raised the idea to include the protection of the environment in the constitution.
A month ago it looked anyway unlikely that he could become a chancellor candidate. Söder emerged during the Covid-19 crisis as a strong political leader on the national level. Bavaria was the first federal state to close down schools and impose a curfew. He also showed presence by attending press conferences of the federal government and inviting the Minister of Health to Munich several times. In the media, he tried to present himself as a caring father of the nation. While he was also criticised for the quick exposure of severe restrictions on freedom, which were mostly not coordinated with the other federal states, he gained massively in popularity. In a poll of the state broadcaster, he was the second most popular politician in Germany, only outperformed by Merkel. And even the prime minister of Saarland from the CDU mentioned Söder as a possible chancellor candidate.
Whoever will be elected as the CDU party leader and chancellor candidate, politics in Germany will change. Not only the Covid-19 crisis will leave traces. The Merkel-era will come to an end at the latest next year, and all possible candidates will have a different style of politics. Merkel’s course of minimal conflict on most issues will end and the CDU will probably shift again to the right. That could finally benefit the social democrats, which suffered under the lack of distinction in the grand coalition. On the opposite side, it could also benefit the Greens as many liberal voters could abandon an estranged CDU towards the popularised Greens. The party has shifted toward the centre during the past years and is currently polling in second place. The political landscape in Germany is about to change, in which direction remains open.
Cover photo: Bundesrat
The cover photo shows Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Minister of Defense in the federal government and outgoing leader of CDU.
Jonas Reichert is an exchange student from Heidelberg in the south of Germany, where he does a degree in Physics. Besides his interests in life outside Earth, he can be found on most times in debating tournaments. In Sweden he tries to figure out how to bake and how to survive the winter.