Every year, Forbes magazine produces a list of the most powerful women in the world. And in 14 of the past 15 years, it has been the same person – Angela Merkel.
German’s chancellor has dominated European politics for the last decade and a half.
Born in what was West Germany, brought up in the East, and then charged with leading a united nation, she reshaped Germany, often dominated European politics, and also changed her party – the Christian Democratic Union, universally known as the CDU.
But now, the Merkel era is coming to an end.
In September, the country will hold an election to choose a new chancellor as she stands down. Merkel will remain as national leader until the election but will then leave the political stage.
The identity of her successor is not easy to predict.
This weekend, the CDU will elect a new leader from among a shortlist of three men.
Whoever wins the election, voted for by 1,001 party delegates from regional, local and state associations, will actually take over as leader from Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who assumed the job in 2018 after Merkel’s decision to relinquish the CDU role, while continuing as chancellor.
In reality, of course, it was Merkel who remained as Germany’s most important political figure and the inspiration for the CDU.
By contrast, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s time in charge was blighted by a series of mistakes and missteps, and by the erosion of confidence in her leadership ability.
She resigned from the job last year, triggering a leadership election that has been percolating for 11 months.
The three men vying for the job are all familiar within the CDU.
Friedrich Merz, a former senior banker at the investment giant Blackrock, is the favourite, with a mission to take the party back towards a more conservative agenda. He is popular with the business community but has struggled for support among the party’s more liberal supporters.
Ranged against him is Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, and a man who makes little secret of his desire to maintain the direction set by Merkel, whose policy framework was famously broad.
Laschet sees himself as a moderniser, keen to reach out to younger voters.
And then there’s Norbert Rottgen, the outsider in this three-horse race. Rottgen is renowned for his grasp of foreign affairs, but says that, if elected leader, he’ll pursue a greener agenda.
Merz is 65, Laschet 59 and Rottgen 55. They are all white, with professional backgrounds. Two of them, Merz and Rottgen, have been previously fired from jobs by Merkel.
Only Laschet, as a regional leader, has had to make big decisions about how to deal with the pandemic, but the jury is still out on whether he got those mainly right or not.
Certainly, his enthusiasm to loosen restrictions after the first wave now looks questionable.
The idea, obviously, is that one of these three will emerge – either in the first round or via a run-off – to lead the CDU into the next election.
But there is another possibility brewing – that the CDU’s choice of leader could be usurped by the party picking someone else to run for chancellor in September.
One choice, talked about with ever-more gusto, would be Laschet’s running mate – Jens Spahn, the German health minister whose popularity has blossomed over the past year.
There are plenty who think that Spahn – a 40-year-old, happily married gay man whose reputation actually exceeded Merkel in one recent poll – would offer a fresh, modern start.
But a more likely contender to run for chancellor could actually be the leader of a completely different party.
Markus Soder, the prime minister of Bavaria, is the leader of the CDU’s much smaller sister party, the CSU.
He’s considered adept, charismatic and decisive, with experience of leadership. A recent poll for Spiegel found that, among CDU supporters, he was considered the candidate best suited to challenge for the job of chancellor.
That decision is for the future.
If Spahn or Soder do throw their hats into the ring, it probably won’t happen until April. And by then, the CDU will have a new leader.
One of Merz, Rottgen and Laschet will inherit the challenge of emerging from the shadow of a leader who has been a dominant figure on the global stage for a decade and a half. For the winner, it will be an imposing challenge.
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