BERLIN — Replacing Angela Merkel is getting complicated.
Despite months of campaigning coming to a head on Saturday, the result of the race to become the next leader of Merkel’s conservative party will offer little clarity on who will replace her as chancellor.
One thousand and one delegates from the ranks of Germany’s Christian Democrats will convene digitally to select a new leader from among three candidates: Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, and Friedrich Merz, a corporate lawyer and former MP.
Initially scheduled for last spring, the vote was delayed twice due the pandemic. Given that the CDU leader has traditionally also become the party’s candidate for chancellor, the race was seen as a first step toward replacing Merkel.
It’s beginning to look like little more than a diversion. Many voters appear not to want any of the three as Germany’s next leader, having their eyes set instead on a politician who has yet to even declare his interest: Bavarian premier Markus Söder.
According to a poll published by Der Spiegel this week, which echoes similar recent surveys, nearly 40 percent of Germans believe Söder, 54, would be the strongest conservative candidate. In addition to the three men vying for the CDU leadership job, the pollsters include Health Minister Jens Spahn, a popular conservative politician said to be positioning himself for a run at becoming chancellor.
Söder and Spahn, 40, have engaged in a shadow campaign in recent days, debating the best approach to dealing with a pandemic that shows no signs of weakening despite a tightened lockdown.
After Söder called for mandatory vaccinations for personnel caring for the elderly, Spahn came out in opposition, saying the government should emphasize education rather than coercion.
“We’re going to rely on arguments and information,” Spahn said.
Spahn also tried to bolster his European bona fides, warning against nationalist tendencies on the question of vaccines.
“Together, as Europeans, we are affected by the pandemic,” said Spahn in a speech to parliament. “Together we will overcome it. While nationalism is growing in other countries, Europe is moving closer together. This is in our interest — economically, politically, socially.”
A Spahn candidacy would mark a major departure for the CDU, which has long been a bastion of the proverbial old white man. Spahn, for one, is gay and married — no small matter in a party that opposed same-sex marriage until recently. He’s also much younger than many of the CDU’s traditional voters.
Spahn’s supporters emphasize his clear-eyed conservatism on issues such as fiscal responsibility, the transatlantic alliance and cultural identity. Despite recent controversy about whether Germany was prepared enough for the coronavirus vaccine rollout and other issues surrounding the pandemic, he has generally received high marks as health minister.
He is also a favorite of the party’s influential youth wing, the Junge Union. Though the group has officially endorsed Merz’s candidacy for the CDU leadership job, Tilman Kuban, the head of the Junge Union, said this week he still regarded Spahn as a possible candidate for chancellor.
Even so, Spahn lacks the executive experience of either Söder or Laschet, the leaders of Germany’s two most populous states. And while Spahn’s approval ratings have risen in recent months — even overtaking Merkel as Germany’s most popular politician in one survey — he continues to trail Söder by a wide margin on the question of who is better suited to become chancellor.
In the Spiegel poll, Söder received more than double the support of Merz, who finished second with 19 percent. Söder’s lead was even bigger among conservative voters, with 54 percent ascribing the Bavarian with the best chances of becoming chancellor.
The result is particularly impressive when considering that Söder has yet to confirm his interest in running. He’s been coy about the issue for months, responding to persistent questions by insisting that his “place is in Bavaria.”
There is no official timetable for selecting the candidate for chancellor, though many conservatives believe the decision should be made by March — six months ahead of the election. The decision will be made in a consultation between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, which Söder leads.
Normally the CDU, which is several times larger than the CSU, has the right of first refusal for the candidacy. The CSU has fielded a candidate twice for the conservative block, losing on both occasions.
But many think Söder, a gregarious politician with salt-of-the-earth appeal, could break that streak.
Even so, the internal competition has made the already challenging task of replacing Merkel all the more fraught.
Laschet and Merz have both made clear they expect to become the conservative standard-bearer in the election should they win the party contest. Neither is likely to give up the once-in-a-lifetime shot at Germany’s highest office without a fight.
The question is how much collateral damage that would create.
Betting on Green
Though Merz leads most polls among the three candidates running for the CDU job, many observers believe he might do more harm than good in a general election.
A staunch conservative, Merz is popular with the right wing of the CDU and voters who have previously supported the far-right Alternative for Germany.
But Merz, whose comments about homosexuals and refugees (not to mention his history as a corporate lobbyist) have drawn ire from both Green voters and others on the left, is less popular among women and centrist voters. These voters, a coalition pieced together by Merkel, are the key to the CDU’s 16-year hold on power.
Even though the conservatives continue to dominate the field with about 37 percent in the polls, some in the CDU worry that a Merz candidacy could end up galvanizing Germany’s left, opening the door to a three-way coalition between the Greens, Social Democrats and the Left party.
By contrast, Söder has been courting the Greens — now Germany’s second-strongest party — casting himself as modern conservative with an ecological world view.
If current polls hold, a coalition between the conservatives and the Greens would have a clear majority of nearly 60 percent; this is why most political watchers in Berlin are putting their money on Söder.
Throughout its history, the CDU has placed pragmatism (read: staying in power) before ideology. If it sticks to that playbook, replacing Merkel might be easier than it currently looks.