Merkel Succession Gets Serious With Vote for Party Leader

The race to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor will start to take shape when her party elects a new leader on Saturday.

Unlike orderly transitions of the past, a botched succession has led to a tight three-way race between long-time Merkel antagonist Friedrich Merz, moderate state leader Armin Laschet and Norbert Roettgen, a foreign-policy expert and former cabinet member. The winner will see the Christian Democratic Union through national elections in September.

While the CDU leader usually goes on to be the chancellor candidate for Germany’s conservative bloc, that step isn’t automatic this time. The Bavarian CSU sister party will have an important say in the decision — and Markus Soeder, the Christian Social Union’s leader, is well ahead in polls for chancellor preference. Merkel called on her party to avoid infighting over its leadership in the buildup.

Merkel Succession Gets Serious With Vote for Party Leader

Looming large over the election is the figure of the chancellor. “There are many people who like Angela Merkel first, and then the CDU,” said Laschet in an explicit acknowledgment of her standing with the public. He is pitching himself as a continuity candidate against the polarizing figure of Merz.

Merz, the most conservative of the three candidates, told delegates he wouldn’t cooperate with the far-right Alternative for Germany. He struck a few awkward notes on the podium, including when he said he didn’t have a problem with women.

“If that were the case, my daughters would have long ago shown me a yellow card and my wife wouldn’t have married me 40 years ago,” he said.

By contrast, Roettgen looked far more in touch with the new generation: “We have to become more female, we have to become younger, we have to become more digital.”

The new CDU leader will have a brief window to prove himself until the two parties choose their joint candidate after state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on March 14. A strong CDU performance at the polls would enhance its chances of thwarting the Bavarian premier.

Merkel Succession Gets Serious With Vote for Party Leader

Merkel’s succession plan was upended nearly a year ago when her protegee-- outgoing Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer -- announced she would step aside following a series of gaffes and leadership challenges. Now, as the final term of Europe’s longest-serving leader nears its end, 1,001 Christian Democrats will choose one of three men to chart a course into the future.

Merkel Succession Gets Serious With Vote for Party Leader

The meeting has been delayed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic and will be held online to adhere to Germany’s hygiene and distancing rules. That presents the party with a number of challenges, including ensuring delegates -- many in their 70s -- can manage the digital voting process.

The CDU is also going to great lengths to ensure systems aren’t hacked and will follow up the online vote with a mail-in ballot -- with the winner being the only option -- to abide by German laws. Any hiccups could spur legal challenges.

Neither of the three contenders is likely to get an absolute majority in the first round, meaning there will be a runoff between the two front-runners. A final result is expected as early as noon.

The new CDU leader faces a challenging political environment. The Greens were on par with the conservative bloc before the coronavirus crisis, and the AfD -- which arose from dissatisfaction with Merkel’s policies -- is nipping at its support. But the conservative bloc maintains a comfortable lead in the polls, thanks to Merkel’s steady leadership and her shift to the center.

Merkel Succession Gets Serious With Vote for Party Leader

The outcome is critical far beyond Germany’s borders. The European Union needs the country’s leadership as it seeks to recover from the pandemic, reset transatlantic ties under U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and chart a post-Brexit course.

Merkel Succession Gets Serious With Vote for Party Leader

Merz, 65, offers the biggest break with Merkel. The former BlackRock Inc. director advocates for a more economically liberal approach. His divisive rhetoric could turn off many voters, and the Greens -- the most likely coalition partner -- are skeptical.

“A CDU under Friedrich Merz would certainly be more shaped by policies that move far away from us and from the center of society,” Robert Habeck, co-chair of the Green party, told reporters this week. His views on capitalism and the economy have “fallen out of sync with the times.”

Merkel Succession Gets Serious With Vote for Party Leader

Laschet, 59, is a moderate in Merkel’s mold. He was considered the clear favorite after forging an early alliance with Jens Spahn, the up-and-coming health minister. The premier from North Rhine-Westphalia has faltered badly in recent months, but could get votes as a safer choice than Merz and has indicated that he’s open to appointing Soeder as chancellor candidate.

Roettgen, 55, was seen as an outsider, but has rallied in recent weeks. A centrist, who was fired from Merkel’s cabinet in 2012, would push a tougher line on Russia and China. He was an outspoken critic of Merkel’s refusal to ban Huawei Technologies Co. from Germany’s 5G wireless networks and has opposed the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia. He’s also expressed a willingness to consider alternative candidates for chancellor.

Path to the Chancellery

Key dates in Germany’s process of electing a new leader:

  • Jan. 16 - 1,001 CDU delegates vote at online convention for new leader
  • Jan. 22 - Result confirmed by mail
  • March 14 - State elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate (run by the Greens and the SPD, respectively)
  • March/April - CDU and CSU expected to decide on joint chancellor candidate
  • April 25 - Thuringia holds early elections after a scandal over the CDU and the far-right AfD teaming up to back the same candidate for premier
  • June 6 - State elections in Saxony-Anhalt, run by a CDU-led three-way coalition
  • Sept. 26 - National elections

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