With everyone in the U.S. fixated on the midterms, I figured it made sense to look across the Atlantic to Germany. As many likely know by now, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that she will be stepping down as Party Chair this December. However, she has also said that she plans to stay on as Chancellor until 2021, the point at which Germany is set to hold its next nation-wide vote to determine the composition of the Bundestag. While media in the U.S. treated this announcement as shocking, it was expected by almost everyone who watches German politics. After all, Merkel has led the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for 18 years and been German Chancellor since 2005. In other words, she has been leading Germany since I was in elementary school, so it is really no surprise that she is eager to step out of the limelight.
The timing of her announcement, while somewhat surprising, actually wasn’t that much of a shock. After all, it came after her party suffered horrible losses in state elections in Hessen. The really interesting thing about her announcement was not the timing. Instead, it was the content. This is because she announced her desire to remain leader of Germany despite not remaining as CDU party leader, something that is almost unprecedented in German politics. Germany has a parliamentary system of government, which usually requires very tight party control to ensure that backbenchers consistently support the leadership. It will be much more difficult for Merkel to command the loyalty from her party that she needs to be an effective Chancellor once she steps down as CDU Party Chair. In other words, she will soon become a lame duck, and I therefore do not believe she will actually remain Chancellor through 2021.
So when might Merkel step down? It is difficult to say with certainty, but there are two scenarios that seem quite plausible. First, she could leave sometime this summer, especially if the Brexit negotiations come to a conclusion. This would make a lot of sense, as it would give Germany stable leadership throughout the Brexit process and then allow the CDU to rebrand halfway through the parliamentary cycle. As a result, the Christian Democrats would have a fresh face going into 2021, but this fresh face would still be running as an incumbent. Of course, Brexit negotiations will likely continue through the summer, so it is certainly possible that Merkel steps down as Chancellor before Britain’s status is fully sorted. Merkel could also lose power if the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) decides to blow up the grand coalition. This seems improbable, as the SPD’s support is in free-fall and the party would be destroyed if new elections were held in the near future. But even if new elections weren’t held and the CDU resuscitated the Jamaika Coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP), Merkel would likely be out. This is because Christian Lindner, the FDP Party Chairman, has publicly stated that he will not serve in a government led by Angela Merkel. For what it’s worth, I think a summer or early autumn departure is most likely. But as with all political predictions, there is a high degree of uncertainty, and it is possible that Merkel leaves much sooner or much later. What is almost guaranteed, however, is that Merkel will not remain Chancellor through 2021.
So, with Merkel on the way out, it is worth considering her potential successors. There are currently three names floating around: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK, as she is called), Freidrich Merz, and Jens Spahn. AKK is the current CDU General Secretary and is frequently referred to as “mini-Merkel” because she broadly share’s the current Chancellor’s temperament and policy preferences. Until recently, many viewed her as the heir apparent. However, Merkel’s recent slide in the polls suggests that this narrative is no longer true, and AKK will have to work hard to develop her own unique brand if she seeks to emerge victorious. Freidrich Merz is interesting because he has largely been out of German politics since 2002 when he was outmaneuvered by Merkel, who then became party chair. Merz has been working as a lawyer since then, and he represents the more conservative wing of the CDU due to his social conservatism and market liberalism. Merz reportedly also has a strong rapport with Richard Grenell, the controversial U.S. ambassador to Germany. This might give him a bit of an advantage in the upcoming party elections, but it would likely only be marginal. Jens Spahn is the final name being seriously tossed around. He is currently serving as Germany’s Health Minister and is by far the youngest of three likely CDU leaders at only 38. Like Merz, he is also quite conservative relative to Merkel, and he has been fairly critical of the Chancellor’s handling of the refugee crisis.
It’s also worth quickly mentioning Wolfgang Schäuble and Armin Laschet. I do not view either of them to be likely successor to Merkel, but it would certainly not surprise me if one of them were to become CDU Party Chair. Schäuble has been in German politics seemingly forever, and he was widely seen as Helmut Kohl’s likely successor. While he ultimately lost out to Merkel, Schäuble has remained an influential and respected CDU party elder who has held many influential positions. While he currently serves as President of the Bundestag, he has previously been Finance Minister and Minister of the Interior. Given Schäuble’s age, I find it hard to believe the CDU would seriously consider him as a long-term replacement to Merkel. However, if there is no consensus candidate, he might be asked to fill in until the party can coalesce behind someone younger. Armin Laschet is also interesting, as he is the current Minister President of Nordrhein-Westfalen – the most populous German state – and a loyal supporter of Merkel. Again, I don’t think him likely to succeed Merkel. However, given that he represents such an important state, he will be able to exercise a significant amount of influence at the party conference in December. For that reason, he is definitely worth watching.
No matter what happens, the CDU will be an interesting party to watch over the next few years. German politics, in general, is going through a major transformation, and that is true for just about every party. From the Greens looking likely to replace the SPD as the main center-left party to the AfD appearing likely to remain relevant for the long-term (at least in the east), formerly fringe parties are becoming increasingly relevant. This, combined with the fact that the major catch-all parties are hemorrhaging support, suggests that Germany is moving toward an extreme multi-party system. Merkel’s departure marks an end of an era, and her absence will leave a hole in the center of German politics. While this will likely weaken the center in the short-term, I suspect it will finally force the kind of introspection and rebranding among German centrists that’s so desperately needed.