1. How has the political landscape changed?
While Merkel’s bloc still led in the polls, it had slumped by around 10 percentage points between the start of February and mid-April and the Greens were not far behind in second place. It was shaping up to be the most unpredictable German election in decades, with several different coalitions possible after the Sept. 26 vote.
2. Who will her party choose to run for chancellor?
Armin Laschet, 60, who runs the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and resembles the chancellor in policy and style, was in pole position after winning the leadership of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union on Jan. 16. While he would normally expect to be the conservative bloc’s candidate for the election, he now faces a strong challenge from Markus Soeder, the 54-year-old leader of the CDU’s smaller Christian Social Union sister party in Bavaria, who is more popular. The CDU crashed to its worst results of the post-war era in state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on March 14. That paved the way for Soeder to declare his candidacy on April 11 after months of maneuvering, saying it was important to have broad backing among party members and the public.
3. What’s happening now?
The CDU’s leadership committee responded to Soeder’s challenge by voicing its support for Laschet in Berlin on April 12. Talks between the two rivals over the following weekend failed to break the deadlock. Soeder has said he will accept any decision the CDU makes, while arguing that he has broad support across the bigger party. CDU leaders may decide on who should be the candidate, or failing that, the 245-member joint parliamentary caucus could settle the issue. The messy split constitutes a divisive struggle in an alliance that’s underpinned German political stability since the end of World War II.
4. 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. The 40-year-old political scientist and foreign-policy expert, who like Merkel represents a constituency in the former communist East, is from the party’s moderate wing and studied international law at the London School of Economics and political science 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. They 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?
According to an infratest dimap poll for public broadcaster ARD published April 15, support for Merkel’s bloc, which climbed as high as 39% in May 2020, was at 28%. The Greens were in second place on 21%, while the Social Democrats, the junior partners in Merkel’s government, were third on 15%. An April 16 Forschungsgruppe Wahlen poll for broadcaster ZDF showed that 63% thought Soeder would make a suitable chancellor. Scholz scored 37%, Laschet 29% and Baerbock 24%.
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 and the AfD has seen its support ebb. The party remains 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.