1. How has the political landscape changed?
Merkel’s bloc is visibly struggling in the polls. It fell seven percentage points behind the Greens, according to a Forsa survey published April 20, after slumping by around 16 percentage points since February. An INSA poll also published April 20 showed the CDU/CSU alliance still ahead by five points. It’s shaping up to be the most unpredictable German election in decades, with several different coalitions possible after the Sept. 26 vote.
2. Who has her party chosen to run for chancellor?
Armin Laschet, who runs the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, secured the backing of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and its smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, after a bruising standoff with rival candidate Markus Soeder. While Soeder, the 54-year-old leader of the CSU, was more popular in opinion polls, Laschet, 60, had the inside track after winning the CDU leadership in January. He secured support from the party leadership in April despite the CDU having crashed to its worst results of the post-war era in state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on March 14. Soeder conceded on April 20, but the unseemly and protracted battle may leave lasting scars in the alliance and dent its chances in September’s vote.
3. What about the opposition?
The Greens, who have gone mainstream under co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, announced on April 19 that Baerbock would be their candidate for chancellor. In stark contrast to the messy fight over the conservative nomination, the process was smooth and amicable. Baerbock, 40, is a political scientist and foreign-policy expert, who like Merkel represents a constituency in the former communist East. She’s from the party’s moderate wing and studied international law at the London School of Economics and politics and public law in Hamburg. The Greens have never led a national government, but were junior coalition partners to the Social Democrats between 1998 and 2005, and have run the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg for almost a decade.
4. What are the coalition options?
The Greens are likely to be kingmakers, either forming a majority with the CDU/CSU or leading a three-way tie-up with the SPD and either the Left party or the liberal Free Democrats. The SPD, for years the CDU’s main rival, has been hurt by coalitions with Merkel and could support the Greens if the parties do well. The SPD candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, would need his party to overtake the Greens and potentially secure backing from the Left to become chancellor.
5. What have polls been showing?
The Forsa poll for German broadcaster RTL published April 20 showed Merkel’s bloc at just 21%, a slump of seven percentage points from the previous week before Laschet and Baerbock were nominated. The Greens surged five points to 28% while the Social Democrats slipped two points to 13% — still ahead of the liberal Free Democrats at 12%, the far-right Alternative for Germany on 11% and the Left party on 7%. The April 20 INSA poll had the CDU/CSU on 27%, the Greens on 22% and the SPD on 16%. The AfD was fourth on 12%, followed by the FDP on 11% and the Left on 7%.
6. What are the challenges for the next government?
• Battling the pandemic: Beating Covid-19 and overseeing Germany’s economic recovery will be the top priority. Merkel’s successor will also need to shore up Germans’ faith in the EU’s ability to deliver, after recriminations over its responsibility for vaccine rollout delays.
• Steering the EU: French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to fill the leadership vacuum that Merkel is leaving behind. Her successor will need to confront disputes over democratic standards in Poland and Hungary and high debt in southern Europe, particularly in Italy, while also reinforcing the message that following the U.K.’s example and leaving the EU is not a solution.
• Reconnecting with the U.S.: Germany is America’s biggest and wealthiest ally in Europe, but came under strong criticism during the presidency of Donald Trump. Joe Biden will have the chance to continue efforts to repair the relationship with Merkel’s successor.
• Managing relations with Russia and China: Germany has kept diplomatic channels open to Moscow and Beijing at a time when allies such as the U.S. and U.K. have been more confrontational.
• Strengthening NATO: Macron said the alliance was succumbing to “brain death” in 2019, and Germany has a pivotal role to play in giving it a sense of direction and making sure it’s adequately funded.
• Dealing with Turkey: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expanded his country’s regional footprint and laid claim to energy and territorial interests in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, escalating tensions with Greece and Cyprus.
7. What does this mean for Europe?
During Germany’s presidency of the EU in 2020, Merkel helped broker a deal on the bloc’s pandemic relief fund, which broke ground on jointly backed debt. Under Merkel, Germany’s fiscal discipline created friction with other EU countries, notably Greece during the financial crisis, but was meant to set an example. While those constraints have been removed during the pandemic, Merkel still sees Germany as a role model. How much debt spending Germany needs to offset the virus will be a major theme of the election campaign.
8. How big an issue is immigration?
Much of Merkel’s recent trouble stemmed from her decision to open the German border to hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015 and 2016. In the 2017 national election, her bloc slumped to its worst result since 1949. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, garnered 12.6% of the vote, making it the first far-right party since 1953 to win seats in the lower house, the Bundestag. Since then, the pandemic has pushed immigration down the agenda. The party is stronger in the former communist eastern states, where many voters feel neglected by mainstream parties. Immigration remains a challenge for Europe and Merkel’s successor will need to establish a common response to it.
9. What about climate change?
Merkel engineered Germany’s exit from nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan, and there is strong support among voters for environmental action. With the EU seeking to build momentum behind its Green Deal, the elements are there for a shift in German energy infrastructure and the industrial model that it powers. Climate policy, touching on the country’s planned exit from coal, its drive for more renewables and agricultural reform, is one of the biggest challenges for any chancellor, and one that could lead to tension between the CDU/CSU and the Greens.