Life After Merkel: The upcoming German regional elections

After a long four terms in government, Angela Merkel is stepping down as Chancellor. The physical embodiment of stability, Merkel has built herself a successful persona of national and international renown. But all good things must come to an end (although no doubt we’ll all be reading her biography in a couple of years), and someone must take her place. The CDU have nevertheless managed to find the Chancellor’s reincarnation in its new leader, Armin Laschet. Once an MEP and journalist, Laschet is now on the brink of becoming one of the most powerful politicians in the EU.

But he’s not there yet. Inside the CDU’s sister party the CSU, the looming figure of Markus Söder hangs over him. Despite having repeatedly claimed that his “job [as leader of the CSU] is in Bavaria”[1], half of Germans consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.[2] 65 percent of CDU/CSU supporters consider Laschet unsuitable as a candidate for chancellor (7% said they were “definitely” in favour of the new CDU boss while 11% were “more or less” so).[3] Söder, however, receives the greatest approval with a total of 79%. His challenge comes from fundamental distrust in the CSU to successfully secure the Chancellorship; two CSU politicians have been nominated as the CDU-CSU candidate in the past, but neither won the big national prize.

Then, of course, Mr Laschet has to worry about the other parties. The SPD has already nominated Olaf Scholz, the finance minister, whose ruthless blaming of the CDU for the vaccination program has signalled the fight to come. In a recent survey, Scholz was the third most popular minister after Merkel and Söder. Laschet, on the other hand, came in at a measly 7th place.[4]

Still, Laschet has a chance to prove himself as a worthy successor. On 14th March, two regional elections will take place, both of which will be vital in judging his success at the head of the CDU. One is in Baden-Württemberg and the other is in Rhineland-Palatinate.

Baden-Württemberg is the more significant. As the third largest state in Germany, the result will be a strong indicator of how each party is doing on a national level. In the last regional election the Greens stormed to victory, for the first time becoming the largest party in any German state. They pushed the CDU into second place.

Rhineland-Palatinate is currently controlled by the SDP, FDP, and the Greens. At the last election in 2016, the Greens lost a significant chunk of their support, letting the FDP into the ruling coalition.

If the CDU can translate their national poll lead into gains in these elections, then the more likely that Laschet can be sure he will be put forward as Chancellor Candidate. The less successful he is, the more likely Söder will be the CDU/CSU’s nominee.

In a recent INSA poll, the Greens are on around 31% of the vote in Baden-Württemberg, the CDU 28% (a 1% increase from 2016), the AfD and SPD on 11% each and the FDP on 10%. Meanwhile, the SPD and CDU are neck and neck in Rhineland-Palatine at 30% and 31% respectively, with the Greens trailing behind at 12%[5]. Here, the CDU has dropped its vote share by 0.8%, but has narrowed the gap with the SPD, who won 36.2% in 2016.

These numbers are neither good nor bad for Laschet. If the result is in line with these polls then he’s not done well enough to be confident of a huge groundswell of support in the September national election. But nor will it be bad enough for the party to replace him. He is exactly the safe pair of hands that he was expected to be when the CDU made him their leader.

On a national level, the initial boost for Merkel on her handling of the pandemic last year has ebbed away although the CDU is still ahead of the polls at 32.5%. The question is who will they govern with? It’s up for grabs with the SPD and the Greens both at 17%, and the FDP at 10%. One certainty is that nobody will rule with the increasingly toxic right-wing AfD at 11%[6].

One politician who is supportive of Laschet’s potential to be chancellor is FDP leader Christian Lindner.[7] With Laschet – who currently governs North-Rhine Westphalia with the FDP – as CDU/CSU Chancellor candidate, this combination could be carried into the federal government. If Söder were to come out victorious, Germany is more likely to find itself in a CDU-Green coalition; the CSU leader has spent much of this year attempting to tighten relationships with the party.

Either way, the Merkel era is over. That is going to leave a leadership vacuum in Europe at precisely the time that it is facing not a significant economic crisis. The Recovery Fund is a huge step forward for the institutions of the EU – but it needs strong and consistent leadership to ensure the bloc doesn’t take a huge step back. Even if Laschet does become Chancellor, he is unlikely to be able to meet the challenge ahead.

[1] https://www.bild.de/politik/inland/politik-inland/markus-soeder-im-interview-jetzt-ist-nicht-die-zeit-fuer-lockerungen-72168988.bild.html

[2] https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/armin-laschet-markus-soeder-und-die-kanzlerfrage-umfrage-zeigt-klare-vorteile-fuer-soeder-a-cf352340-9dd9-4371-9dd4-7ab06ab7da9f

[3] https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/armin-laschet-markus-soeder-und-die-kanzlerfrage-umfrage-zeigt-klare-vorteile-fuer-soeder-a-cf352340-9dd9-4371-9dd4-7ab06ab7da9f

[4] https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1817/umfrage/noten-fuer-spitzenpolitiker/

[5] http://infratest-dimap.de/umfragen-analysen/bundeslaender/rheinland-pfalz/laendertrend/2021/februar/

[6] https://www.wahlrecht.de/umfragen/insa.htm

[7] https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/fdp-chef-christian-lindner-ueber-armin-laschet-cdu-laschet-kann-kanzler-a-20455c33-1e47-4bfa-8a22-6c851197f043