Who Wants to Be Germany’s Next Chancellor?

Ludger Helms

University of Innsbruck

Ludger Helms, M.A. (Freiburg), Dr. phil. (Heidelberg), Habilitation (Humboldt, Berlin), is a Professor of Political Science (Chair of Comparative Politics) and Head of the Research Centre “Spheres of Governance” at the University of Innsbruck.

Before joining the University of Innsbruck in 2008, he was a Senior Research Professor in the Department of International Relations at Webster University and a Heisenberg Fellow of the German Research Council. He has held positions or visiting affiliations at the University of Heidelberg, the University of Göttingen, Humboldt University, Harvard University, UC Berkeley, Barnard College/Columbia University, the London School of Economics, the University of Tokyo, LUISS, Central European University and Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta.

The German Federal Republic has been widely perceived as a classic case of party government, in which the parties and the party complexion of governments shape the country’s political fortunes more than any other factor. At the same time, Germany has famously been described as a “chancellor democracy” since the Adenauer years, which implies that the person at the top may make much of a difference in their own right. In an era of advanced personalization of politics and an unprecedented level of international summitry, which turns the chief political executives of some countries, including Germany, into global decision-makers, the latter assessment is more justified than ever.

While most parties across Western Europe and beyond have lead candidates that spearhead the electoral campaigns of their parties, German chancellor candidates are still a peculiar species, as they are not always their party’s official leader. The role of chancellor candidate was invented in the early 1960s when the Social Democrats opted for Willy Brandt, then-Mayor of Berlin, rather than SPD party leader Erich Ollenhauer to challenge Chancellor Adenauer. Ever since the major German parties have nominated a particular chancellor candidate.

To some extent, all three [chancellor candidate] contenders can be characterized as unlikely candidates.

Long-term Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement back in late 2018 not to renew her mandate as CDU party leader and to step down after the 2021 Bundestag election created an unprecedented situation. For the first time, there have been three non-incumbent chancellor candidates from three different parties – CDU/CSU, SPD, and the Greens – competing for the job at the top and the legacy of a departing incumbent.

The way these three candidates emerged testifies to the ongoing turmoil within the German party system and the major parties. To some extent, all three contenders can be characterized as unlikely candidates.

This is certainly true for Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who failed to win the SPD party leadership in 2019. This defeat was all the more hurtful as Scholz (and his running mate), who had been the favorite, lost the party leadership election to two lightweight competitors (Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans). Still, a year on, it was precisely the two new party co-leaders that took the lead in nominating Scholz, who continued to be the SPD’s most popular politician, for the chancellor candidacy. This early nomination – thirteen months ahead of the Bundestag election and eight months before the other parties presented their candidate – may have been driven by the best intentions, but it involuntarily left Scholz in the strange position of shadow boxer, desperately waiting for his adversaries to come out.

Armin Laschet (CDU) was even less a natural candidate for the CDU/CSU. When the CDU set out to find a successor to Merkel as CDU party leader in late 2018, Laschet did not even join that race at all, although CDU party leaders have historically enjoyed a preemptive choice on the chancellor candidacy. Thus, from Laschet’s perspective, it was fortunate that Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the newly elected party leader, failed to find her feet and resigned after just fourteen months. In the CDU party leadership challenge taking place in early 2021, Laschet faced, as Kramp-Karrenbauer did before him, Friedrich Merz (a former CDU parliamentary party group leader-turned-businessman and committed Merkel critic), whom he defeated only in the second ballot. After that hard-won victory, many in the CDU considered the pending decision on the chancellor candidacy a foregone conclusion. They were to be wrong. The lengthy showdown between Laschet and CSU party leader and Bavarian Minister-President Markus Söder that came to dominate the headlines in April became one of most bitter candidacy-related infights among the two ‘sister parties’ in a long time, comparable only to the events of 1979, when Franz-Josef Strauß (CSU) became the CDU/CSU’s chancellor candidate. Söder enjoyed the reputation of a committed crisis manager and authoritative chief-interpreter of the COVID situation in Germany (if largely owed to his stint as chair of the Conference of Minister-Presidents) and sidelined Laschet in terms of personal popularity. It was a contested vote in the CDU leadership bodies on April 19 that finally settled the case, as Söder was willing to accept this outcome and consequently withdrew his candidacy. Still, it is important to note that the issue divided different constituencies within the CDU as much as the two sister parties from each other.

Annalena Baerbock (Bündnis 90/The Greens) was in some ways the most unlikely chancellor candidate of all. While there had been speculations since early 2019 that the Greens, experiencing a peak of public support in popular opinion survey (with figures hovering about 20 percent), might for the first time present a chancellor candidate of their own, this role seemed long to be reserved for Robert Habeck, Baerbock’s Green co-party leader. Habeck had all the qualities that many considered essential for a successful candidacy, such as ministerial experience (at the state level), extended policy expertise, and sophisticated rhetoric. Baerbock – who enjoyed a gender-related advantage, which weighed heavily in Germany’s most feminist party – gained ground in terms of public popularity only several weeks ahead of the decision. The decision itself was taken by Habeck and Baerbock alone, conspicuously ignoring the longstanding tradition of Green grassroots democracy. When the deal was done and publicly launched on April 19, Baerbock was hailed by the German media as a political princess the country had been desperately waiting for – not least because this notably peaceful solution contrasted favorably with the ongoing infighting within the CDU/CSU. Underscoring the importance of chancellor candidates for their party’s fortunes, some surveys taken in late April showed the Greens ahead not just of the SPD, but also the CDU/CSU.

However, the weeks to follow saw Baerbock’s star waning. There was a whole series of revelations of more or less serious acts of misbehavior – ranging from an expenses slip and inconsistencies in her CV to allegations of plagiarism in a book published in 2021 – which hurt Baerbock’s status badly. Early in July, the allegations and frustrations reached a level that caused the left-wing daily newspaper, taz, a longstanding supporter of the Greens, to declare Baerbock’s mission over. While the party hastened to ensure Baerbock of their support, rumors that Habeck could replace Baerbock as chancellor candidate at some point in the campaign would not disappear completely.

Long-term leaders are infamous for casting long shadows, and there will be no way of escaping the task of dealing with the Merkel legacy, in one way or another.

Several surveys taken in early to mid-July suggested that the Greens were trailing 10 percentage points behind the CDU (18-20 to 28-30 percent), with the SPD stuck at about 15 percent. While, ultimately, the composition of the next German federal government and the chancellor question will be decided by the ability of competing parties to build a viable governing coalition, rather than the electoral showing of individual parties, these figures could not fail to impress decision-makers and supporters. After all, there is an established tradition in Germany that the largest governing party controls the chancellery.

As Germany is waiting for the ultimate showdown of the candidates and their parties to begin, recent events – such as in particular the flooding disaster in parts of Western Germany after days of record rain, which took the lives of more than 150 inhabitants – remind us of the contingency factor in politics. At the time of writing it seems impossible to tell if or to what extent these events – which prompted calls for a new climate policy – could cause another turnaround in the fate of individual candidates and parties. By contrast, one of the few things that seem certain relates to the particular challenge that any possible successor to Angela Merkel is going to face once assuming the chancellorship. Long-term leaders are infamous for casting long shadows, and there will be no way of escaping the task of dealing with the Merkel legacy, in one way or another.

This contribution draws on a previous publication by the author, which offers a more detailed assessment of the candidate-centered events of the first 150 days of the election year. The article, published in the Austrian Journal of Political Science, can be accessed (free of charge) here: https://webapp.uibk.ac.at/ojs/index.php/OEZP/article/view/3810

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.