Post-Merkel: Who stands the best chance of becoming Germany’s next chancellor?

A sea change in German politics began this week with two leading parties announcing their candidates to succeed Angela Merkel at September's elections, when the veteran chancellor will bow out from politics.

Post-Merkel: Who stands the best chance of becoming Germany's next chancellor?
Merkel at a meeting at the Bundestag. Photo: DPA

After 16 years with Merkel at the helm of Europe’s largest economy, politics in steady-as-it-goes Germany is entering a period of unpredictability.

A prelude of upheavals ahead came in the form of a damaging power struggle within Merkel’s CDU-CSU alliance, that finally ended with Armin Laschet nominated as the conservatives’ chancellor candidate.

READ ALSO: Meet Armin Laschet, the king of comebacks grasping for Merkel’s throne

Meanwhile, the opposition Greens have shot to the top of some surveys for the first time after they picked 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock as their chancellor candidate on Monday.

The race for Merkel’s throne has now been blown wide open, heralding a dramatic shift in Germany’s political landscape.

Green Chancellor?

Post-war Germany has been led only by chancellors from either the centre-right CDU party or the centre-left SPD party.

But with the Social Democrats polling only around 16 percent currently, there is little chance that they could make a comeback for Germany’s top job with their chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz, Germany’s current finance minister.

Rather, speculation is now rife that Europe’s economic engine may well get its first Green chancellor come September.

A survey by Forsa on Tuesday showed Baerbock’s Greens on 28 percent, an astonishing seven points ahead of the conservative CDU-CSU alliance.

Baerbock gave a speech following her selection as chancellor candidate on Monday. Photo: DPA

Strong among younger and urban voters, the Greens have long since overtaken the social-democrats as Germany’s second-biggest electoral force, and can now even dream of toppling the ruling conservatives.

At a regional level, the Greens are now part of government coalitions in more than half of Germany’s 16 states, including in Baden-Württemberg, home ground of auto giant Daimler.

Once notorious for their infighting, the ecologists presented a united front behind Baerbock — something that has not gone unnoticed at a time when the CDU-CSU was in chaos over their own succession plans.

A former journalist and trained lawyer, Baerbock is considered strong on policy and detail but has no direct experience of government.

READ ALSO: Who is Annalena Baerbock, the ex-trampolinist aiming high in German politics?

The Greens have however sought to draw comparisons with the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

And Baerbock has presented herself as the candidate for renewal, saying that “others stand for the status quo”.

Squabbling conservatives

While the Greens are basking in their latest popularity surge, Merkel’s CDU-CSU alliance is struggling to pick up the pieces after bitter squabbles over Merkel’s succession.

READ ALSO: Greens become ‘most popular political party’ in Germany

The conservatives finally plumped for Laschet on Tuesday after over a week of high drama that brought them to the brink of implosion.

Yet their subsequent slump in the polls to a record low of 21 percent appeared to confirm what many had feared — that Laschet is too unpopular among voters to keep the conservatives in power.

According to Forsa, 63 percent of Germans think the CDU-CSU’s chances are worse under Laschet than they would have been under his more charismatic Bavarian rival Markus Söder.

“The CDU have lost their will for power,” wrote conservative broadsheet Die Welt after Laschet’s nomination.

Even before the damaging power struggle erupted, the conservatives were suffering in the polls because of the public’s frustration over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Devastating accusations of corruption linked to mask procurement deals afflicting some of its lawmakers have also further hurt the conservatives’ standing.

Laschet will therefore have his work cut out as he seeks to unify his troops behind him.

Critics warn that he will also have to draw up clear policy positions, weeks after other parties released their manifestos.

“Nobody knows what the conservatives stand for without Merkel as chancellor,” wrote Der Spiegel weekly on Wednesday.

Other constellations

Much will now hang on whether Laschet manages to steady the conservative ship.

While most observers are still expecting a coalition of the Greens and the CDU-CSU bloc to emerge, a failure by the conservatives to stop a haemorrhage of support may well open the door to other possibilities.

A three-party left-wing coalition between the Greens, the Social Democrats and the radical Left party could well be possible.

Asked which would be her preferred coalition partner, Baerbock said her party is not interested in “tagging behind others”.

“We would prefer to lead this government,” she said.

By Kit Holden

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.