DEU130906aa002Berlin--Germany – and Europe – have been bracing for Chancellor Angela Merkel's departure this year ever since she announced in 2018 that she would step down.

Now with elections approaching in September, there is no small amount of speculation over who will replace the European Union's longest serving leader and chief crisis manager. But after German state elections this week, that answer is even more elusive.

"That's the big question," said Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank, referring to speculation over who will be Germany's next chancellor.

"Normally, the chairman of the party would also be the chancellor candidate...but the CDU could decide to bet on a different ticket – there is talk of perhaps recruiting someone (else)," she added. "And after Sunday, it looks like they do need to do something because with Merkel not on the ballot, the CDU is looking quite vulnerable."

On Sunday, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) lost support to the Greens in two of its traditional strongholds, the western states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The results were the worst ever by conservatives in those two states.

The results, in part, are blamed on the CDU's handling of the pandemic – Germany, initially a role model at the beginning of the crisis, is facing its third wave and remains in partial lockdown after three months of closures. Add to that burgeoning corruption scandals hitting the party.

Over the past few weeks, three conservative lawmakers have resigned over graft scandals – two of them are accused of profiting from helping mask manufacturers get government contracts. Another CDU lawmaker resigned this month amid a criminal investigation examining his ties to Azerbaijan.

Still, some say it's just one more crisis for Germany's "Mutti" (Mommy) and her CDU, who initially saw their popularity rise during the early months of the pandemic.

"There was some Merkel fatigue before, in 2019, but then her popularity got a huge boost along with the CDU because of the pandemic and how she handled it," said David-Wilp. "But now as things are starting to fall apart – there's no vaccinations, there's not enough testing, there's pressure to open up, and we're practically in a third wave – and Sunday showed that voters are tired of (this government)."

Even so, in Germany, where people are famously risk-averse and prefer the status quo, some voters say Merkel needs to stay. Slightly more than half of Germans surveyed in a recent poll said they worry because Merkel won't be the country's chancellor after September.

"It's not the right time for Merkel to leave," said Jonas, 20, a voter in Berlin, who wants Merkel to serve another term. "The last one and half years were her most challenging and frankly, I wouldn't like to be in her position."

"It's sad because we grew up with her," he added. "The other candidates are not very suitable and do not represent this future generation."

Still, some are ready for a change after 16 years.

On Twitter, hashtags such as #MerkelMussWeg (Merkel must go) and #MerkelStoppen (Stop Merkel) trend with thousands unloading on everything from the lockdown restrictions to the slow rollout of vaccines.

"The only fear we need to have is of the unfathomable incompetence of our government...This government is destroying the country, mocking our #fundamental rights and costing lives," wrote a user that goes by "Fuer Deutschland" (For Germany). Another post by "LotherReinhard" read, "There is also a time after Merkel! Thank God! We look forward to that in 2021!"

Still, many here bemoan the lack of a clear successor. Some believe that situation exists because Merkel is leaving the CDU without a clear party identity other than herself: Polls show that 45 percent believe that Merkel is the most important reason to vote for the CDU.

"Angela Merkel led the CDU for 18 years as party leader and 16 years as chancellor but never followed a direction. After the Merkel era, the CDU is a party that has been programmatically gutted and is now also completely unsettled," said historian Andreas Roedder in an interview with Die Welt daily newspaper. "... There has been no substantive programmatic emphasis of its own."

So far, Merkel's preferred successor is North Rhine-Westphalia state leader Armin Laschet, who recently became chair of the CDU. But he's shunned by Germans – only 14.7 percent said in a recent poll that he was a suitable candidate for chancellor. Markus Söder, Bavaria's leader and the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of the CDU, is a more likely candidate. He has the highest approval rating of all candidates, at 44 percent, another recent poll found.

And while the conservatives still maintain a lead over the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) nationally, the CDU's declining support could mean a chancellor from another party if the Greens continue to make gains.

In Sunday's elections, the Greens held their lead in Baden-Wuerttemberg and nearly doubled their support in Rhineland-Palatinate. Nationally, they are in second place, polls show, with 19 percent of the electorate. The CDU currently polls at 31 percent.

The Social Democrats, currently in a reluctant coalition with the CDU/CSU, trails in third place, just ahead of the AfD, which performed poorly in Sunday's elections – losing a third of its support in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the worst losses seen by any party.

"We thrive with direct contact with our voters but we weren't able to do that (during the pandemic), AfD co-chair Alice Weidel told public broadcaster ARD, also attributing a loss of support due to an announcement this month by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution that it will place some party members under surveillance for domestic extremism.

In 2016, a year after the start of the refugee crisis which saw Germany take in almost a million refugees, the party became the largest opposition party in parliament as fear of migrants spiked.

This year, though, concerns over immigration dropped out of the top five concerns of voters, polls showed.

Analysts say that the pandemic drowned out the party's messaging while infighting has hurt the party. But the biggest blow has been being put under surveillance by intelligence agencies, which analysts say has turned off voters, especially those who have chosen the party as a protest vote.

Outside of Germany, meanwhile, regardless of which party wins in September or who takes the helm of Europe's biggest economy, some Europeans hope the next chancellor will be the cheerleader for Europe Merkel has been – and as effective at diffusing crises.

Because, while she's credited with keeping Germany stable and prosperous, she's also heralded for keeping the bloc together.

"I don't think Europeans should worry because whoever the next chancellor is, he or she will be pro-Europe," said David-Wilp. "The EU is a foreign policy pillar for Germany that's solid... Germany needs Europe – without it, Germany wouldn't be where it is today."

Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down as the head of the center-right Christian Democratic Union in 2018 and will step down as chancellor later this year. 
Credit: World Economic Forum (2011)

Story/photo published date: 03/23/21

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.