Angela Merkel’s resurgence as the most competent and enduring European politician has been a notable by-product of the Covid pandemic. After a difficult period at the polls, when her CDU party suffered a series of tough regional defeats, Germany’s chancellor resigned as its leader in 2018. At the same time, Merkel announced that she would not run in federal elections this fall. But his calm authority and strategic clarity during the current crisis have led to stellar approval. ratings 70%. After a serious drop in polls before Covid, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, have benefited from a domino effect. Far ahead of the Greens, their closest rivals, Germany’s Christian Democrats go into election year with an almost impregnable lead.
In light of this change, much of Merkel’s party may wish that she didn’t leave the stage after all. But the die is cast. This week, the first outlines of the post-Merkel era will emerge, when the CDU elects a new party leader, and the favorite to be its electoral candidate. For almost two decades, Merkel’s kind of big-tent continuity centrism has dominated the CDU. But the three-way contest looks like a major fork in the road. It has big implications for the European Union, as well as its most powerful member state.
Leading more center of the CDU members is the irascible right-wing Friedrich Merz. Mr. Merz is a social and fiscal conservative who believes in low taxes and a smaller state. He has criticized Merkel for her endorsement of an EU-wide coronavirus recovery fund. On this, and on issues like immigration, Merz believes that the chancellor’s liberal policies have brought swaths of CDU supporters into the arms of the right-wing populists of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). You have said that your goal is to adapt policies to get them back.
Merz, a wealthy corporate lawyer, faces two candidates who are more favorable to Merkel. North Rhine-Westphalia Prime Minister Armin Laschet and foreign policy expert Norbert Röttgen would keep the CDU at the center, with their sights set on a possible post-election coalition with the Greens. Mr Röttgen has also pointed out that the party must deepen its appeal to young and progressive voters through ambitious environmental programs and digital investments.
If it were up to the membership, Europe’s most successful postwar party would likely embark on a new trajectory to the right with Merz. But this week’s verdict will be issued by secret ballot by 1,001 party officials. They may judge their rejection of consensus politics as too risky, and an eventual association with the Greens as far preferable to any kind of deal with the AfD.
Most Europeans hope that view will prevail. Merkelism has had many critics and supporters, and the CDU’s recent electoral setbacks reflected deep frustrations with the status quo. This was particularly so in the east, where the left-wing Die Linke party and the far-right AfD have reaped the political rewards. But from the 2015 migration crisis to handling the Covid pandemic, Merkel has generally held the line in favor of a policy of decency, compassion and internationalism. One might expect Mr Laschet or Mr Röttgen to follow that tradition as Europe faces global challenges posed by Covid, the climate emergency and migration. Mr. Merz presents himself as a modernizer willing to shake up the cozy devotions of the political center. But his tough economic views and social conservatism belong to Germany’s past, not its future.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism