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Who are the rivals to lead Germany after Chancellor Merkel?

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image captionArmin Laschet needs to stamp his authority on his own CDU party ahead of the election

The race to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor is wide open, but the rivals all face the same tough challenge: how do you stand out, overshadowed by such a political colossus?

Mrs Merkel has dominated German politics for 16 years as chancellor. Her would-be successors have to make their mark before the September federal election.

Here is a quick guide to who they are, with an assessment by Damien McGuinness in Berlin of the chances they have.

Armin Laschet, centre-right CDU/CSU

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The 60-year-old leader of Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) is premier of heavily industrial North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state.

Despite years of top-level political experience he struggled against a Bavarian rival for the candidacy – Markus Söder, leader of the CDU’s junior partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Finally the Christian Democrat leadership rallied behind Mr Laschet, who now has to woo Mr Söder’s many supporters.

The pandemic has exacted a political toll on the two conservative parties: their support has slumped to roughly 28% according to polls.

Mr Laschet is the son of a mining engineer and for years defended Germany’s powerful coal industry. He was late to back protection of the Hambach Forest near Cologne: much of it had already been felled to make way for brown coal (lignite) mining. Some question his commitment to decarbonisation, when the Greens are polling strongly and CO2 cuts are legally binding.

The Catholic Church was a strong influence on him as a boy, through his devout parents and his Church-run school.

He is well-connected internationally and is firmly pro-EU: he served as a Euro MP and hails from Aachen, a border city with strong French ties.

In 2005 he became minister for integration in his home region, the first such post in Germany, and forged strong ties with its large ethnic Turkish community. He firmly backed Mrs Merkel’s lenient but controversial policy on immigration in 2015, when more than a million migrants reached Germany.

What are his chances? Backed by Germany’s most powerful bloc, Armin Laschet should be the clear favourite, writes the BBC’s Damien McGuinness in Berlin. But he’s accused of inconsistency over lockdown measures, so his ratings are rock-bottom. His power struggle with Markus Söder has only annoyed voters more. Mr Laschet believes once the pandemic is more under control, the party’s poll numbers and his ratings will improve. But there are doubters in the CDU.

Annalena Baerbock, Greens

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The only woman in the race to succeed Angela Merkel, she is the Greens’ first ever candidate for chancellor, as previously the party insisted on a leadership duo.

A former trampoline champion from the northern city of Hanover, Ms Baerbock, 40, studied law and politics in Hamburg and London and worked for the Greens in the European Parliament.

She has been a German MP in the Bundestag since 2013, and as a mother of two young daughters has campaigned strongly on family issues as well as the environment.

She has never held a ministerial post, but argues that she is therefore untainted by German “status quo” politics, which she wants to transform.

With Greens’ co-leader Robert Habeck she has overseen a surge in the party’s popularity. Recent polls put them second, roughly five points behind the CDU/CSU, so they could well go into coalition with the conservative parties after September.

She and Mr Habeck have a reputation for enforcing discipline in a party with a history of splits between centrists and radicals.

What chances? Ms Baerbock has tapped into a desire for change after 16 years of conservative-led government. The Greens have never looked so strong and appear likely to enter a government coalition. Yet a lot can happen in the next five months, and previously Green candidates have soared, then crashed. Now the Greens are marching to power, rivals will be readying for battle.

Olaf Scholz, centre-left Social Democrats (SPD)

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Like Armin Laschet, Olaf Scholz, 62, has had a succession of senior posts in German politics. He is currently German finance minister and Chancellor Merkel’s deputy.

He has been a Bundestag MP since 1998 and before becoming finance minister he served as labour and social affairs minister for two years, then mayor of Hamburg (2011-2018).

He hails from Osnabrück in northwestern Germany and entered politics as a Socialist Youth leader, having studied labour law. In SPD ranks he is seen as a conservative.

He has overseen the emergency €750bn (£647bn; $904bn) funding package put together by the federal government to help German businesses and workers survive the pandemic.

“This is the bazooka that’s needed to get the job done,” he said. He is generally seen to have performed well in the pandemic, which has put huge strain on German finances and businesses.

But some question whether he has enough charisma to unite the country; he was once nicknamed “Scholzomat” – a reference to his rather boring, technocratic image. He will have to work hard to revive the SPD’s fortunes – they slumped to around 15% and have been stuck there for a long time.

What chances? Mr Scholz is widely seen as experienced and competent. Unfortunately for him, in the SPD he is often seen as too fiscally conservative. So he lacks the support of both voters and party. The Greens are usurping the SPD’s traditional position as the main centre-left counterweight to the conservatives. Something would have to change dramatically for the SPD to lead the next government.

Christian Lindner, liberal Free Democrats (FDP)

Many will remember how in 2017 the FDP leader pulled out of coalition talks with the CDU/CSU and Greens, saying “it is better not to rule than to rule badly”.

Current polls put the FDP on 9-11%.

Christian Lindner is expected to be the FDP chancellor candidate, having no obvious FDP rival. The 42-year-old joined the pro-business party back in 1995 and became a Bundestag MP in 2009. He studied political science at Bonn University and is a reserve officer in the armed forces.

In the pandemic he has sharply criticised the lockdown restrictions, saying they ought to be more tightly targeted, accompanied by more efficient testing. Poor crisis management, he said, had changed Germany’s image from “efficiency superstar” to “bureaucratic monster”.

His slogan is to make Germany “more modern, more digital and freer”. The FDP wants lower taxes and more emphasis on individual initiative.

What chances? Mr Lindner is a divisive figure, seen as too economically right-wing for centrist mainstream voters. His reputation plummeted when he was accused of flouncing out of coalition talks in 2017. But if he manages to stay in the room next time, the FDP could keep its traditional role as kingmaker in a new coalition.

Far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)

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image captionAfD leaders Jörg Meuthen (R) and Tino Chrupalla

The anti-immigration AfD got elected to the Bundestag for the first time in 2017. Riding a wave of voter frustration and anger over the migrant crisis, it became the main opposition party and now has 91 seats.

It has since fallen in the polls and has not yet put forward a candidate for chancellor. The anti-establishment party prides itself on grassroots politics. Either of the party co-chairmen Jörg Meuthen and Tino Chrupalla could become “Spitzenkandidat” for chancellor.

The AfD is hostile to the EU and sees Islam as a threat to German culture and traditions. Polls suggest the AfD’s support has shrunk since Covid began to outweigh voter concerns about immigration.

The AfD has been in the news for rejecting Covid restrictions – despite the spread of infection – and holding a party conference face-to-face, not remotely. It sees the restrictions as a gross violation of personal liberty.

What chances? The AfD’s increasingly radical agenda has given it a toxic reputation, alienating it from mainstream voters. Support is stuck around 10-11% and the party has failed to capitalise on dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic. But it has a bedrock of loyal supporters. It’s unlikely the party will do well in September; but it won’t go away either.

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