For those of us born since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is difficult to imagine a Germany without Angela Merkel at the helm. She has been the country’s incumbent chancellor for almost 16 years; a tally surpassed in the entirety of the country’s history only by Otto von Bismarck, the titan of 19th-century Europe, and Helmut Kohl, whose prolonged tenure spanned East-West reintegration and the end of the Cold War. Among the G7, a club of the richest world economies, Merkel’s experience is unparalleled, having served as the Group’s senior leader for a record-breaking seven years, since 2014.
Affectionately known as “Mutti” (or “Mother”) by many Germans, Merkel remains a steadfast symbol of German and European stability. When she leaves office in five months’ time, she will do so with her head held high and opinion polls still favouring her more than almost any other world leader, despite the EU’s bungling of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. But this leaves her country in a serious quagmire: how can she possibly be replaced?
Two leading candidates have emerged in recent weeks, with the country’s most popular parties having now selected their nominees for the September election. Armin Laschet, Merkel’s own chosen successor, finally won his party’s favour this month after a dogged struggle with Markus Söder for the nomination. Despite Söder’s far superior popularity among centrist voters, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany’s largest party, eventually – but decisively – opted for 60-year-old Laschet. Söder, who had gained prominence as leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party in the country’s largest federal state, Bavaria, will have to wait for his shot at the top job.
Laschet’s candidacy demonstrates the CDU’s desire to “keep on keeping on”. After all, why fix it if it ain’t broke? And yet many have their concerns over his election chances. Laschet has headed up the CDU since the start of the year but has struggled with poor ratings. As a modest, devoutly Christian lawmaker, he has made lots of political friends over the years and few enemies. One wonders, however, whether this will be enough to win him the chancellery, at a time when radical problems – from the pandemic to climate change – demand radical solutions. Laschet’s middling political stance may have worked wonders for Merkel over so many years, but a large part of her more recent electoral success was based on the appeal of her experience, which her CDU successor simply does not have on the global stage.
That leaves room for a possible change of course in German politics and Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party candidate for chancellor, may offer the desired solution. The Greens have been on the rise for a while now, but never before have they put forward a nominee in serious contention to lead the government. Baerbock is part of the next generation of German politicians. Having only turned forty last year, she brings vigour and dynamism to a political scene starved of such qualities. Her proven record in uniting her own party since 2018 and during difficult negotiations over issues such as the use of coal in the country makes Baerbock a formidable opponent.
As might be expected, her party is progressive on the environment, calling for a zero-emissions economy, but not as radical as it used to be on foreign policy, having previously advocated the dissolution of NATO. In this day and age, its policies are refreshing; not nonsensical, but necessary if climate targets are to be met. If Baerbock were to win the premiership, Germany could credibly position itself not just as a global leader on tackling climate change, but also with the promise of improved handling of other pan-European issues, such as vaccination against COVID-19 and immigration. Nevertheless, running a country is not the same as running a party and the Greens do not have experience on their side when it comes to heading up what will undoubtedly be another coalition government.
How the CDU performs in the final few months of its term may be vital in determining which vision Germans hope to realise for their country. Thus, Merkel’s job is not yet done, and she must prove her party’s worth, even if her own place in the history books is already secured. The question of continuity versus change is not unusual when it comes to framing any election, but the choice for Germans this September could hardly be starker: even more Merkelism or an eco-metamorphosis?