Angela Merkel’s handover of power was never supposed to be this messy. Even after her rumoured favourite, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, stepped down surprisingly as CDU Chair in early 2020, many German political observers generally expected the long-serving Chancellor to eventually hand over the country’s top job to a fellow Christian Democrat.
Sunday’s state election results not only throw big questions on those assumptions—but open the possibility that when Merkel leaves government, the CDU follows her out. Following a chancellorship built on Merkel’s brand of stability, the 2021 German national election could ironically be the country’s most unpredictable campaign in a long time.
In 2020, international media outlets sometimes held Germany up as a case study for how western countries could manage the pandemic’s public health and economic fallouts. But it’s a new year—coronavirus cases are rising once again, the country’s slow vaccination rollout isn’t picking up speed, and two CDU/CSU MdBs have resigned following evidence they personally profited from government mask purchases early in the pandemic.
Around half of German voters are now dissatisfied with the country’s overall pandemic management. Three-quarters are discontent with its vaccine rollout. The government’s approval rating has sunk to its lowest level since the pandemic began last year. Lockdown fatigue has set in, with a majority of voters in favour of at least a partial relaxing of restrictions, even with cases rising.
Against all this, the Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg elections offered one of the best chances for the country’s political parties to gauge public moods before September’s federal vote
Both contests saw the CDU vote share drop to historic lows—while Baden-Württemberg’s Greens netted their best ever election showing at 33 percent of the vote.
Sitting Green Premier Winfried Kretschmann is spoilt for choice when it comes to possible coalition partners to join his state government. He could either opt to continue his current “Green-Black” coalition with the CDU—or negotiate a three-way coalition with the Social Democrats and liberal Free Democrats, whose traditional colours are red and yellow, respectively. If he pursues it, expect more German media interviews in the next few months about whether a possible “traffic light” coalition might work nationally.
“It’s clear that it’s possible to achieve majorities without the CDU,” SPD Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz said of the results. “It’s also possible to govern Germany without the CDU and CSU.”
For now, the liberal FDP is downplaying traffic light expectations—making it clear its cooperation comes at a price. “In coalitions, we take care to ensure that we won’t have higher taxes or absurd bans,” tweeted Marco Buschmann, a high-ranking FDP Member of the Bundestag.
Speaking to public broadcaster ZDF, FDP Leader Christian Lindner laid out the party’s conditions, but left the door open. “The cards are being reshuffled this year, as Ms. Merkel is obviously not running again” he said. “But it’s the [policy] content that’s decisive.”
Recent polls show about a third of Germans would vote for Merkel’s CDU if an election were held now. That’s a figure that leads all other parties and makes it nearly impossible to form a government without it. Yet its numbers have slipped around five percent from what they were less than a month ago.
The CDU is clearly spooked. “If we don’t find our way back to our strengths, then other parties can govern without us,” former CDU leadership contender Norbert Röttgen told ARD.
“A catastrophe for our CDU,” tweeted MdB Kai Whittaker. “No more dull continuity politics. We need a new beginning.”
Yet new CDU Chair Armin Laschet has only been in the job for two months. Where else can Union politicians turn for a fresh start if not to the man they just voted in as their new leader? Based on approval numbers, many might already be tempted to turn away from Berlin and look to Munich for the answer—specifically to Bavarian Premier Markus Söder.
In the Bundestag, the CDU bands together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Before each national election, the two decide on a joint candidate to put forward for Chancellor. Customarily, Laschet would be the Union candidate as CDU Chair. But the Union has opted for a CSU candidate twice before, once in 1980 and once in 2002—losing both times.
With three-quarters of Germans recently surveyed—including CDU voters—reporting that they don’t think Laschet is suitable for the Chancellery, the Union could soon decide their chances are better with Söder.
At a score of 54 percent in early March, only Merkel’s approval rating exceeds Söder’s among Germans nationally, buoyed so far by his strict crisis leadership in Bavaria. His recent public statements on how the country should manage the pandemic suggest he’s testing his potential chances at a national level.
“Vaccination must be faster. We need faster approvals, more time between doses and an export ban for AstraZeneca,” he tweeted just before Germany temporarily suspended the vaccine’s use. “It can’t be that the US hoards all vaccines. A good partnership also means there needs to be a transatlantic approach to vaccines.”
While Söder is vocal on pandemic management issues beyond what might be considered his purview as a German state leader, he’s keeping quiet on whether he in fact intends to run. “There’s nothing new to report on the Chancellor candidate question,” Söder told reporters after Sunday’s state elections. “We’ll be continuing our discussions to decide the best possible lineup we can offer together. We are still two parties who need to come to a common decision.”
Given the CDU’s current downward trend, those discussions with the CSU might become increasingly one-sided the longer the pandemic drags on in Germany. Given Laschet’s image as a candidate representing continuity with the Merkel era, the country’s recent pandemic stumbles may leave the Union deciding that Söder is the only candidate with a profile both large and independent enough for them to keep the Chancellor’s office later this year.
Aaron Burnett is a German-Canadian journalist specialising in international security, as well as European and Canadian politics.