BERLIN — If the world were normal right now, Germany’s center-right Christian Democrats would be gathering in Berlin on Saturday to elect their next party leader, who will very likely succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor of Europe’s biggest economic and political power.
Like so many things, that election has been postponed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak: Party delegates will choose their next leader in December instead. Despite the delay, the race to succeed Merkel is still on. But rather than giving speeches to the party faithful, those who want the job—some of whom are playing key roles combating the virus—are now facing real-life auditions in crisis management.
That development is by no means the dominant topic of discussion; Merkel’s steady, competent stewardship throughout the crisis has made Germans grateful to have her around a bit longer. Nevertheless, the Christian Democratic Union leadership race is a regular undercurrent running through the ongoing debates about how the government should respond to the outbreak and its effects.
“You’d like to think that Germany’s response is in no way influenced by this leadership race, but politics doesn’t just come to a halt because a pandemic strikes,” Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist and nonresident fellow at the University of Kiel’s Institute for Security Policy, told me by phone. “I’m not convinced the policies themselves would be significantly different if we were not in the midst of this succession, but I think the way we would debate them would be different.”
Germany has received international accolades for its handling of the crisis, which has resulted in a comparatively low number of deaths thus far. As of Friday, more than 150,000 people had tested positive for the virus, approximately 107,000 of whom have recovered; 5,321 people have died, according to figures from the Robert Koch Institute.
The extremely high confidence in Merkel raises the question of whether the party wants a new leader who continues down her centrist political path or seeks a new rightward course.
As a result of the promising trends, debates about how and when to reopen various parts of the country are intensifying—as are those about the proposed issuing of “corona bonds” to help European Union member states hardest hit by the virus. CDU politicians hoping to lead their party are playing active and vocal roles in those discussions, with sometimes conflicting views.
For those in a visible, tangible position to affect the outcome of the crisis—like Armin Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state and one that’s been hard-hit by the virus, and his ally Jens Spahn, the federal health minister—the crisis offers a high-profile chance to demonstrate what kind of national leaders they would make. Laschet has been a vocal supporter of loosening nationwide restrictions; some schools in his state reopened on Thursday. Spahn, meanwhile, is the public face of the national government’s efforts to combat the virus: In addition to giving regular news conferences and explaining the latest actions and restrictions, he has made the rounds on American and other international television describing Germany’s efforts in fluent English.
And Bavarian premier Markus Söder, while not in the running for CDU leader—he heads the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union—has also taken on a higher profile as the leader of another hard-hit state. In contrast to Laschet, Söder has favored tighter restrictions and cautioned against lifting them too early; he was one of the first state-level leaders to introduce strict social distancing measures. Söder could now very well be under consideration as the chancellor candidate for the CDU/CSU in the next national elections, expected in fall 2021; it’s unusual, but not unheard of, for a CSU politician to run as the candidate for both parties.
Others who have no active role fighting the virus are finding it much more difficult to stay relevant and involved in the current political debate. The biggest headlines garnered by Friedrich Merz, a former CDU parliamentary leader not currently in government, came not from any professional or political action but the fact that he contracted Covid-19. And Norbert Röttgen’s day job as head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee doesn’t directly relate to handling the outbreak. Still, he’s been speaking out about international cooperation in a time that clearly demands a lot of it, expressing fears about the EU’s future if the bloc doesn’t band together and overcome its weaknesses. (Röttgen’s position may give him a bigger platform once the immediate danger of the virus passes and more attention turns toward the economic and political aftermath.)
The leadership race and its postponement reflects the story arc of German politics over the course of the year—and how rapidly and completely it has shifted. Back in February, CDU politicians in the eastern German state of Thuringia broke a major taboo by voting together with the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to oust the left-wing premier. Given Germany’s Nazi past, the significance of that action is difficult to overstate; Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the then-party leader, hand-picked by Merkel herself, sought and failed to bring her Thuringian colleagues to heel. Although her position had been unstable for months, the Thuringia vote proved the final straw: Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation a few days later.
That debate dominated Germany’s political news for weeks afterward to the near-exclusion of other topics. But as soon as the first cases of coronavirus surfaced in Germany and the country watched with concern the devastation in nearby Italy, the virus became the one and only topic of discussion in public life. The AfD, once adept at wielding outsize influence over news headlines and political debates, has seemingly lost its way. The Greens, who had been in the midst of an impressive 18-month rise, have also lost traction during the crisis.
Meanwhile, the CDU is doing better politically than it has in years, largely because most Germans believe its leaders in government have competently handled the current situation. A survey from the polling institute Forsa released last weekend had the party at 39 percent, six points higher than its result in the 2017 federal elections and more than 10 points above its support just before the crisis. Approval ratings for Merkel, her government and the measures Germany has implemented to combat the virus have been sky-high as well: A survey released Friday by the broadcaster ZDF found Merkel’s approval rating at 83 percent and that of her government at 90 percent.
“What we see is a real boost for the Christian Democrats… This was [their] best showing since August 2017,” Peter Matuschek, Forsa’s chief political analyst, told me. “This is the ‘rally around the governing party’ effect that we usually have in such crises, but also of course related to the management of the crisis on behalf of the government.”
As with everything these days, it’s extraordinarily difficult to predict what will happen once the acute threat of infection has subsided: Will the CDU maintain its commanding position in the polls or will German politics revert to its pre-coronavirus status quo? The answer will depend in large part on whether the government’s policies continue to work—and how it handles the economic destruction the virus will leave in its wake. Should the situation worsen significantly in Bavaria or North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, Söder and Laschet could see their political fortunes change. If the nationwide response becomes unpopular, the CDU as a whole could suffer.
The extremely high level of confidence in Merkel and the party’s improved fortunes also raise the question of how the crisis will affect debates about what kind of party the CDU intends to be in the future—whether it wants a new leader who continues down Merkel’s centrist political path, like Laschet, or seeks a new, rightward course, like Merz.
The way matters stand now, the scales appear to be tipping toward maintaining a Merkel-esque course. “The bottom line is that there were many people in the CDU thinking, ‘We need to have a break from Merkel and… that there was going to be a new course for the party that necessarily didn’t follow in Merkel’s footsteps,” Sudha David-Wilp, senior transatlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office for the German Marshall Fund, told me. “But now that she’s back in the limelight and people are so appreciative of her… whoever is going to run for the chairmanship will want to have her backing.”
Photo: Armin Laschet (Olaf Kosinsky, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Armin_Laschet_CDU_Parteitag_2014_by_Olaf_Kosinsky-11.jpg)