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Who will replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor?

Who will replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor?
Electoral campaign posters for the three leading parties - the Greens, Christian Democratic Union, and Social Democratic Party - stand side by side in the run-up to the September 26th vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld
With the German federal elections fast approaching, we look at the top candidates to take Angela Merkel's place after she steps down in September - and the candidates who could be important junior members of the next government.

The Chancellor candidates

When it comes to Merkel’s successor, there are three candidates in the running: the Social Democrat’s Olaf Scholz, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union’s Armin Laschet, and the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock. 

Here’s who each of them are, and what they stand for.

Olaf Scholz (SPD):

Seen as the capable but bland continuity candidate, Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz has slowly but surely emerged as the favourite to become the next German Chancellor in the lead up to September 26th.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Social Democrats take surprise lead in election poll

As Merkel’s trusted Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor, he could well be the candidate most qualified for the job – and he is the only one of the main candidates to have held a ministerial post.

Having entered the political fray as the head of a local SPD branch in Hamburg in 1994, the ardent centrist been a familiar face in German politics for almost as long as Merkel, and has been seeking to establish himself as her natural successor in the run-up to election day. 


Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz is the most experienced of the candidates seeking to lead Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Unlike his two main rivals, Armin Laschet of Merkel’s CDU-CSU alliance and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, the 63-year-old has managed not to make embarrassing mistakes on the campaign trail. That might be part of the reason for the SPD’s reversal of fortune over the past months. 

READ ALSO: Olaf Scholz: A safe pair of hands who wants Merkel’s job

At the start of the year, the SPD was trailing so badly in the polls that many had written off the chance that the party — currently the junior partner in a coalition with Merkel’s conservatives — would be part of the next government. But the latest surveys have the SPD surging ahead of the conservatives, and when it comes to which personality Germans would like to see as their next chancellor, Scholz is the favourite by some distance.

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For people from countries that prefer bombastic politicians, that may be hard to understand: as one former US ambassador was quoted as saying, Scholz’s personality “makes watching water boil seem exciting.”

But while his lack of charisma and robotic speeches may have earned him the nickname ‘Scholz-o-mat’ among political peers, many Germans clearly believe Scholz has the traits they want in a leader. Namely, a reliable, safe pair of hands who will take the middle ground – much like Merkel. 

Armin Laschet (CDU): 

Armin Laschet, the head of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, was long the flawed but clear favourite to become Germany’s next chancellor when Merkel bows out of politics on September 26th.

But with polls showing the conservatives slipping well behind the Social Democrats (SPD) and on a downward trend, the 60-year-old’s road to power is looking rockier.

Things started to go wrong for Laschet in mid-July, when deadly floods struck western Germany – including North Rhine-Westphalia, where he is state premier.

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He was caught on camera laughing in the background as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid tribute to flood victims, and was also widely mocked for wearing inappropriate dress shoes to the disaster zones.


Armin Laschet is seen as an affable and moderate character – but some have questioned whether he’s serious enough to lead Europe’s most powerful economy. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

A few weeks later, he also came under fire for suggesting that “2015 must not be repeated” when talking about the crisis in Afghanistan — a reference to the influx of refugees to Germany in that year, which he had supported.

In his personal life, the father-of-three is a devout Catholic and met his wife — who is of French-speaking Wallonian origin — singing in a church choir. But with his affable Rhinelander persona, Laschet has been accused of lacking the gravitas to negotiate on the world stage.

If elected, Laschet says he will work to combat climate change while also supporting business and industry – though some have questioned his track record of placing restrictions on wind farms in North-Rhine Westphalia during his time as state premier. 

However, the close Merkel ally has veered away from those in his party clamouring for tax cuts, saying that now is not to the time to either raise or cut taxes. That suggests he will tend towards small-c conservatism if elected as Chancellor, taking a cautious approach to economic issues, much like his predecessor. 

READ ALSO: No tax hikes, climate action: Here’s what’s in the election manifesto of Germany’s CDU

Though his party are trailing in the polls, the gaffe-prone politician – who managed to beat the wildly popular Markus Söder in the race to become the conservative candidate for this year – is also known as “the king of comebacks.” Whether he’ll be able to pull off a similar turnaround on September 26th remains to be seen. 

Annalena Baerbock (Green Party):

Annalena Baerbock, the youngest of the three Chancellor candidates at 40, rose up through the ranks of the Green party, first as an advisor to a party MEP then as head of the party in the state of Brandenburg.

She entered the Bundestag in 2013 when she was still just 32 years old.

Respected inside the party for her work ethic and attention to detail, she was announced as the Green’s first ever Chancellor candidate in April.


The Greens’ Annalena Baerbock is admired for her work ethic, but has been accused of ‘cutting corners’ in a campaign book she released earlier this year. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Soeren Stache

Her candidacy initially led to a surge in popularity for the environmentalists, with several polls showing them out in front. But Baerbock’s campaign has been derailed by errors, with critics saying her ambition has led her to cut corners.

Most damagingly, a book she published in June, which she claimed was autobiographical, contained several sections that had been lifted word-for-word from other sources without attribution. Baerbock later suggested that a ghost writer was responsible for the errors.

READ ALSO:

If she were to succeed Merkel, the next government would seek to ramp up Germany’s investment in renewable energy while also increasing funding for organic farming. Higher taxes on the wealthy would be used to alleviate child poverty.

The Greens have fallen back in the race for the Chancellery in recent weeks to a current 18 percent, well down from an April high of 26 percent. Baerbock will need to put in an impressive performance in upcoming TV debates if she is to turn things around and become Germany’s second female Chancellor.

The possible coalition partners

With a threshold of five percent of the popular vote set as a condition for entering parliament in Germany, there are only three other parties on track to make it: the liberal Free Democratic Party, the far-right Alternative for Germany and the leftist Linke. 

Since all major parties have ruled out a coalition with the AfD, that leaves the FDP and Linke as potential coalition partners. Here are the people we could see as junior partners in the government after September 26th. 

Christian Lindner (FDP):

Like many of the other candidates hoping to get a shot at the Chancellorship this year, the leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) came into politics at an early age.

Born in Wuppertal in 1979, Christian Lindner was elected as an MP at 21, becoming the youngest ever MP in North Rhine-Westphalia’s state parliament.

Having overseen the re-emergence of his party after their four-year absence from parliament between 2013 and 2017, Lindner is often the sole focus of the FDP’s campaign materials – and you might have seen his sharp suit and steely blue eyes staring back at you from one of the liberal party’s iconic pink and yellow posters.


Christian Lindner has overseen the FDP’s recent upswing – but feminist magazines have branded him the “Most Sexist Man Alive”. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

The party’s increasingly widespread appeal lies in its pro-business policies and liberal approach to social issues. Its manifesto promises to promote entrepreneurship with stipends for struggling businesses, cut income tax and invest in digitalising Germany’s infrastructure. 

While Lindner can’t be accused of lacking charisma, his jokes haven’t always gone down well. In 2020, he was even given the unenviable title of “Most Sexist Man Alive” by feminist magazine Emma after making a number of sexualised jokes during his political speeches.

Though the FDP is known for being socially liberal, its harshest critics have also accused the party of failing to distance themselves enough from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on occasion. The issue came to head when an FDP candidate recently won an election in Thuringia with the support of the far-right party – though he immediately stepped down from the post. 

READ ALSO: ‘It’s unforgivable’: Why Merkel and Germany are up in arms after shock far-right AfD vote

In the past few years, however, the party has accrued a growing number of supporters – and according to recent polls, could well end up the kingmakers in the upcoming elections as parties struggle to form a coalition. 

Closer to the CDU economically but the SPD socially, the FDP have formed coalitions with both parties over the decades. 

Janine Wissler und Dietmar Bartsch (Left Party): 

The left-wing Linke party are putting forward a duo to lead them into the election: party chairwoman Janine Wissler is accompanied by Bundestag faction leader Dietmar Bartsch in what is largely a symbolic leadership role as the party have no realistic chance of winning the election.

The successor party to the SED, communist East Germany’s autocratic rulers, the Linke were for a long time a pariah in post-reunification politics and were even watched by the domestic security agency. Recently though they have been joining left-wing coalitions at the state level, such as Berlin’s SPD-Green-Linke government.

READ ALSO: After Merkel: What do the polls tell us about Germany’s next leader?

Unlike many of the other candidates, 40-year-old Wissler is a relative newcomer to frontline politics. She took over as co-chair in February after an arduous power struggle left the party wallowing in the polls. Two of her key demands are the dissolution of NATO and an absolute end to foreign military missions in foreign politics, and the expropriation of apartment blocks from large property companies on the domestic front.


Left Party veteran Dietmar Bartsch and political newcomer Janine Wissler are standing on a joint ticket to become the next leaders of Germany – though their chances of snapping the top job are slim. Photo: Bildnachweis

Bartsch, meanwhile, is a party veteran who first won a seat in the Bundestag in 1998. He has been faction leader in the Bundestag for six years and is a respected head in the party. Currently polling at around seven percent, Die Linke look set to enter the next parliament as the smallest party. The SPD run a constant tightrope over whether to rule out a coalition with them or not.

READ ALSO: Merkel says ‘huge difference’ between her and vice-Chancellor Scholz

For swing voters, Die Linke’s participation in the government is a no-go due to their ambivalent relationship to the east German state and their pro-Russian politics. But there’s much more cross-over between SPD and Linke positions on wealth distribution as there is with those of the CDU or the pro-business FDP. Merkel this week said that the biggest difference between her and wannabe successor Olaf Scholz (SPD) is that she would never consider working with Die Linke.


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