As Angela Merkel steps down, German politics falter

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“WCHAT A PRESIDENCY it has been! ”After an exhausting night EU summit in mid-December, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, reserved her biggest smile for Angela Merkel, German Chancellor. The summit, to which the EUGermany’s leaders have reached agreement on a number of sensitive issues and ended the six-month German presidency of the EU Advice, which he will deliver to Portugal on January 1. It could also prove to be the highlight of Merkel’s last term.

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A year ago, Merkel began to lose weight. Having promised not to run for a fifth term, she plunged into foreign policy as the junk to succeed her began to consume domestic politics. His center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was below 30% in the polls, torn by feuds which forced Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the alleged heiress of Merkel, to resign CDU leader. The chancellor’s succession plans were in tatters.

Two things changed the mood. The first was the pandemic, which brought Merkel back to center stage. In a televised address on March 18, she caught the attention of Germans by describing the novel coronavirus as the country’s biggest challenge since 1945. More recently, as Germany faces a deadlier second wave, it has launched passionate appeals to parliament to lock up faster and faster (the constitution reserves these powers to states). Germany’s early successes in reducing the number of deaths, its strong budgetary response and Merkel’s calm have restored her fortunes. She now enjoys an approval rating of over 70% and her party’s reputation has exploded (see graph).

Then came the EU advice presidency. As covid-19 tensions tested European bonds, Merkel broke the German taboo against common debt and agreed to an amount of 750 billion euros ($ 916 billion) EU-a large fund to help recovery in 2021 and beyond. She then persuaded the ailing governments of Poland and Hungary to sign new rule of law provisions in the EUfiscal rules and helped organize a tightening of the EUthe climate objectives of. December brought more success: after avoiding a no-deal Brexit, the EU looked ready, like The Economist went to press to agree on the outline of an investment deal with China. It is a prize long sought by Merkel, although it irritates the growing group of Sinoskeptics in Europe and the new Biden administration.

No wonder Jens Spahn, the German Minister of Health, says voters have not registered that the Chancellor is about to leave. Yet as the EU presidency and the worst phase of the pandemic receding in the past, Merkel’s star could fade faster than expected. In 2021, a series of political events will unfold towards the September general election, reminding voters that the Merkel era will soon be over.

The first is the election of a new CDU leader at a virtual party convention on January 16. The three men who present themselves for the post see it as a stepping stone to the Chancellery. Still, the campaign has been disheartening, and not just because covid-19 postponed the vote twice. The debates were trivial and CDU the big ones seem to fear that too vigorous a contest on the future of the party after Merkel will reveal difficult divisions to heal only a few months before an election campaign.

None of the three captured the imagination of party supporters. The periodic explosions of Friedrich Merz, a proponent of lower taxes, excite CDUconservative base but worry the moderates who know that the German elections are won by the middle. Armin Laschet, the bland but jovial leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, has no obvious argument beyond Merkellian centrism; his poll numbers took a nosedive. Norbert Röttgen, a foreign policy expert once sacked by Merkel, was initially struck off. A lively campaign attracting women and young people put him in the running, but he remains an outsider.

Some CDU the numbers complain more or less openly that Mr Spahn, who has handled the pressures of his job well, is better suited to leadership than Mr Laschet, to whom he has pledged his allegiance. Many also look with envy on Bavaria and Markus Söder, its charismatic prime minister and head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDUthe feast of the sisters. The biggest CDU one would normally expect a decisive word when the two parties choose a common candidate for the chancellery, probably in the spring. But a series of confident performances during the covid crisis turned Mr Söder into one of Germany’s most popular politicians. His denials of interest in the top post did not prevent the question from being asked.

All of this leaves the CDU with a problem. Of the three most popular conservative politicians in Germany, one (Ms Merkel) is retiring; another (Mr. Spahn) holds fire; and a third (Mr. Söder) says he no longer has ambitions. The three men seeking to lead the CDU, meanwhile, languish an embarrassing distance behind. It remains to be seen whether Mr Spahn and Mr Söder will be able to control their ambition. But the CDUThe uncomfortable position of ‘s will concentrate minds among the 1001 party delegates tasked with choosing their next leader.

All parties recognize that the CDU / CSUSolid polls hide a big “Merkel bonus” that will expire largely before the election. It will be easier to see his size once the party chooses a new leader. The ascending Greens, who briefly overtook the CDU / CSU in 2019, hope to soak up a few centrist votes, especially if Mr. Merz wins in January. The same goes for Olaf Scholz, the mild-mannered finance minister and vice-chancellor, who will lead the Social Democrats (SPD) in elections. But his early consecration as candidate chancellor has so far failed to raise the dismal ratings of his party.

German parties will also participate in five state elections in 2021. Two in eastern Germany could test the CDUfirewall against cooperation with the hard right Alternative for Germany. But the most striking, in March, will be in Baden-Württemberg, a rich southern state led by the Greens in coalition with the CDU. This arrangement may prove to be a failure for a national coalition, but with the CDU / CSU as a senior partner. Both parties are clearly preparing for such a “black-green” coalition, but a host of other configurations are possible in what is set to be the most unpredictable election in Germany in decades. Merkel prioritizes stability above all else, but there will be less and less of it as she prepares to relinquish the country’s leadership.

For more coverage of the German elections, visit our dedicated hub

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Tough act to follow”


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