These Are The Top Politicians Vying To Succeed Angela Merkel As Germany's Chancellor
BERLIN — The post-Merkel era is imminent, something an anxious German electorate has been trying to ignore. But the mood grew more upbeat last week after the Green party announced its first-ever chancellor candidate and Merkel's conservatives decided, after much internal wrangling, on theirs.
With the election five months away, the race has now begun in earnest to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down after 16 years in office. Merkel's departure comes at a difficult time for a country in the grips of the pandemic's third wave, and for a continent struggling to deal with the virus' economic and political ramifications.
Three parties have now announced their chancellor candidates — the Social Democrats' Olaf Scholz, the Christian Democrats' Armin Laschet, and the Greens' Annalena Baerbock.
With the Greens now leading the polls, Baerbock, 40, is seen as a serious contender, and the race is likely to center on her and Laschet. All candidates sit in the political center, even if their parties traditionally haven't. While 62-year-old Scholz, the current finance minister and vice chancellor, is a respected and experienced politician, his party is polling too low for him to have a likely chance of entering the chancellery.
Baerbock immediately declared her intention to shake things up.
"Democracy thrives on change," she said in her first campaign speech. "Sure, I've never been chancellor, never been a minister. But I'm running for renewal while others are running for the status quo. This country needs a fresh start."
Baerbock, a career politician, was relatively unknown until she became party co-chair in 2018. A member of the Bundestag since 2013, she grew up in a rural village near the northern city of Hanover. Her parents took her to anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1980s, which also attracted supporters of the Green Party, then in its early years. Baerbock speaks fluent English, having studied at the London School of Economics, and was a medalist at national trampoline championships.
Since Baerbock's candidacy was announced, the German press has been awash with comparisons to Merkel, citing fellow lawmakers who say she is tenacious, meticulous and places great importance on expertise — all traits for which the outgoing chancellor is also well known.
Laschet, the 60-year-old conservative candidate, is also often compared with Merkel. The son of a mining engineer, he's served as state premier of North Rhine Westphalia, one of Germany's major mining regions. Laschet has been slow to back a coal industry shutdown by 2038 — something Baerbock wants to bring forward to 2030. But this long-term, loyal ally of the incumbent chancellor shares many of Merkel's moderate and centrist views, such as her pro-refugee stance.
Although he's running for the party that's been in power for the past 16 years, Laschet is also promising change.
"We cannot continue with business as usual," he said on announcing his candidacy. "This country needs modernizing. It needs speeding up and improving."
But Jana Puglierin, head of Berlin's European Council on Foreign Relations, says Laschet — a centrist within the center-right Christian Democratic Union — is very much business as usual.
"Armin Laschet is basically the reincarnation of continuity," she says. "He is, in many ways, Merkel in a [men's] suit."
While polls suggest German voters aren't yet convinced he really is Merkel's successor, Laschet is often underestimated, Puglierin says. He is an experienced politician who governs Germany's most populous state, home to the cities of Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn and Essen.
Nonetheless, with Baerbock in the race, he'll have his work cut out for him.
"Germany is a very status quo-oriented country," Puglierin says. "But after 16 years, I think there is some change in the air. And Annalena Baerbock is the newcomer. She is fresh air. She's new ideas, a new spirit."
At an outdoor market in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, Clara Himmel, a 66-year-old retired nurse, says she likes Baerbock and is considering voting for her.
"She's knows what she wants," Himmel says, "and she's no-nonsense about getting it."
Himmel recalls anxiety in the past about the possibility of contaminated produce at market stalls like this after Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 — an incident that galvanized the Greens.
Still, Himmel has never voted Green. She says they were always too radical. That is, until Baerbock, who has moved the once single-issue environmentalist party into the political center, balancing an ambitious climate policy with the interests of big business.
"She's a breath of fresh air that would do our country good," Himmel says.
On the domestic front, the Greens plan to invest in the infrastructure neglected by Merkel's administration, which has prioritized balanced budgets for the past decade.
The Greens also diverge from their rivals on foreign policy. Instead of putting business interests first and pursuing the policy of Wandel durch Handel — change through trade, and strengthening economic ties in the hope of gaining influence — as Merkel, her conservatives and their coalition partner, the Social Democrats have done, the Greens take a tough line on China and Russia. And they oppose the controversial Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, whose construction Merkel's government has supported.
Arne Jungjohann, an analyst with the Green-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation, says the Greens' rise in polls from 8% three years ago to as high as 29% this week can be attributed, in part, to the counterweight the party offers to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD), currently polling at 9%.
"The Greens today are a pro-European force, they are refugee-friendly," Jungjohann says. "They see themselves as defenders of democracy against attacks from the extreme right."
While Laschet, like Merkel before him, also fits this description, it's currently having no effect on the polls. His party and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, have lost more than 10 percentage points in recent weeks, following revelations about conservative lawmakers profiting from face mask deals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Puglierin says the CDU is at risk of losing voters who only ever cast their ballots for the party because of Merkel: "The Green party is now attractive to those that were once attracted to Merkel," she says, because it has moved just enough into the political center to appeal to a very broad portion of the German electorate.
But for all the buzz about the Greens, the CDU/CSU could still make a comeback in the polls, she believes. Laschet, after all, took North Rhine Westphalia back from the Social Democrats in state elections in 2017.
While Baerbock and Laschet fight over the political center, Germany's proportional representation voting system and historical reliance on coalition governments means the two candidates could well end up governing together, Puglierin says, with Laschet probably taking the top job, and Baerbock potentially serving as foreign minister.
But Puglierin and other analysts predict the Greens will be in the driving seat when it comes to coalition negotiations. And it's possible that Baerbock could oust the CDU/CSU by forming a government with the Social Democrats and libertarian Free Democrats, taking the top job in the process. That really would be a change.
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