The backroom deal to find Germany’s next Chancellor

Dr Oliver Hartwich
9 March, 2021

As a commentator on European affairs, there is no question I have heard more often in recent months than who will replace Angela Merkel.

Two years ago, Germany’s long-serving Chancellor announced she would not be running for a fifth term in the 2021 election.

But even as that German election draws closer, there are few certainties. Covid permitting, it will be held on 26 September. That is just about half a year away, but it is not clear yet who will be running to take Merkel’s place.

German federal politics is messier than usual right now. The country has been in semi-lockdown for months – and will be until at least the end of March. The vaccine rollout is slow and bureaucratic. And a corruption scandal over face masks procurement has gripped Parliament.

And to make matters worse, the party-political situation is complicated – right across the political spectrum.

Let us start with Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union (CDU). It recently elected Armin Laschet as party chair. Laschet, since 2017 state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, is a heavyweight in German domestic politics. That is because his state of 18 million people is the most populous in Germany.

However, Germany’s major centre-right grouping is split along regional lines. The second-largest state, Bavaria, has its own party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). That CSU is led by Bavaria’s premier Markus Söder – another domestic heavyweight.

Because there are two centre-right parties with their own ambitious leaders, there is no automatism who runs for Chancellor as Merkel retires.

Over the past year, both Laschet and Söder tried to present themselves as the better choice. Their fortunes ebbed and flowed with the Covid situation in their states. Each regional outbreak, each measure to manage the pandemic, were directly linked to their race to succeed Merkel.

For now, at least, it appears as if Laschet had momentum to claim the candidacy. A meeting between him and Söder is supposed to happen “sometime between Easter and Pentecost”. That is when the two men are planning to decide who will run for their combined parties.

So, between 4 April and 23 May the Germans will find out about their next Chancellor. The keys to the Chancellery will result from a conversation between two state premiers. That is because opinion polls leave little doubt that the next Chancellor will come from the ranks of the CDU/CSU grouping.

It is almost comical that the future leadership of a G7 country will be determined in a provincial backroom deal.

However, events could still upset these plans. This week, the public learnt about two MPs (one from the CDU, one from the CSU) who pocketed six-digit sums of Euros for the procurement of mask deals. Both parties were quick to distance themselves from their MPs, one of whom was even a deputy leader of the parliamentary faction. Still, the affair has caused considerable damage to the CDU/CSU.

That affair also has the potential to cost the CDU votes in upcoming state elections. Next Sunday, the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate will go to the polls. Both used to be CDU strongholds, yet they are no longer.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, population 4 million, the CDU trails the Social Democrats in opinion polls (29% vs. 33%). In Baden-Württemberg, population 11 million, the CDU is miles behind the Greens (24% vs. 35%).

If, following the masks procurement affair, the CDU gets a hammering in these important state elections, the pendulum might swing back from Laschet to Söder – and Germany could get its first Bavarian Chancellor.

What about the other parties, you might ask? Do they play a role at all with the race for the Chancellery?

The answer is: not really.

The trends in federal opinion polls since the 2017 election have been remarkably steady. With the CDU/CSU in the mid-30s, both the Greens and the social-democrat SPD in the mid-10s, the socialist The Left, the liberal FDP and right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) all around the 10-percent mark, there has been little movement.

Added to that polling stability are political incompatibilities, which rule out coalition possibilities.

All parties have declared not to cooperate with the AfD. That will not change since the country’s domestic intelligence service just placed the AfD under surveillance for potential anti-constitutional activities.

Though in some states there are coalition governments with The Left, a federal coalition would breach a taboo. Should the SPD and the Greens try it, it would most likely tear their parties apart – and so they will not dare.

Once you remove The Left and the AfD from the coalition building game, few options remain to reach a majority of seats in the Bundestag.

After two decades of dramatic decline, the SPD has shrunk so much its votes may not suffice to form another ‘grand coalition’ with the CDU/CSU. There is nothing grand about a coalition that barely scrapes in to form a parliamentary majority.

That the SPD has nominated federal finance minister Olaf Scholz as their candidate for the Chancellery is little more than nostalgic folklore. The party stands zero chance of leading the next government, and it knows that.

If there was a left-of-centre Chancellor, it would have to come from the Greens. The Greens now regularly outpoll the SPD, yet they are still a distant second to the CDU/CSU at the national level. It does not make it likely to have a Green Chancellor, as much as the party likes talking up its chances.

The most likely coalition, therefore, is a CDU/CSU/Greens arrangement after 26 September.

Such a coalition outcome would be a first at the national level and only the second time the Greens made it into the federal government. However, in practical terms, it should not make much difference.

In her various coalitions with the SPD, interrupted by a coalition with the FDP, Merkel’s CDU/CSU governed in a centrist and sometimes left-of-centre way. Expect that this broad direction would not change with the Greens as coalition partner and either Laschet or Söder as Chancellor.

German politics can appear complicated from the outside. However, for casual observers there is at least one consolation: few things ever change. Just prepare to get used to a different name after 16 years of Merkel.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates