Le­a­dership for a post-Mer­kel era, by Ke­vin O’Bri­en.

Handelsblatt Global Edition Magazine - - Table Of Contents - BY KE­VIN O’BRI­EN

Ne­ver in her de­ca­de-long ru­le has An­ge­la Mer­kel be­en so po­li­ti­cal­ly vul­nerable. He­re are th­ree po­ten­ti­al suc­ces­sors.

One ye­ar ago, An­ge­la Mer­kel see­med in­vin­ci­b­le. The de-fac­to he­ad of Eu­ro­pe had just won a ten­se round of bluff po­ker with Greece, sing­le-han­ded­ly sa­ving the euro cur­ren­cy and de­fy­ing mar­ket skep­tics. She had slap­ped down Vla­di­mir Pu­tin, lea­ding wes­tern sanc­tions against Rus­sia for its sei­zu­re of the Cri­mea. Her tough li­ne an­ge­red ma­ny Ger­man ex­port com­pa­nies with ties to Moscow, and cost Mer­kel po­li­ti­cal ca­pi­tal at ho­me. But she ro­de it out, and by mid-ye­ar was con­side­red in the run­ning for the No­bel Pe­ace Pri­ze.

But then ca­me the re­fu­gees, first in a trick­le, then in a flood. At first, Mer­kel rol­led out Ger­ma­ny’s wel­co­me mat, po­sing for sel­fies with de­li­rious, de­spe­ra­te es­capees of war, ter­ror and po­ver­ty. But as their num­bers swel­led to 1.1 mil­li­on by the end of 2015, the good will and pa­ti­ence of a good por­ti­on of the Ger­man pu­b­lic was ex­hausted. Now, Mer­kel is on the ro­pes po­li­ti­cal­ly, a lo­nely oc­cup­ant in her mo­der­nist exe­cu­ti­ve for­t­ress on the banks of Ber­lin’s Spree Ri­ver. Her par­ty’s ne­glec­ted con­ser­va­ti­ve wing, which wat­ched for ye­ars in hor­ror as she agreed to rai­se ta­xes, ex­pand wel­fa­re be­ne­fits and com­mit ot­her li­be­ral sins, sei­zed at the chan­ce to pay her back.

Slow­ly but stea­di­ly, led by her chief per­se­cu­tor, Ba­va­ri­an pre­mier Horst See­ho­fer, they ha­ve re­e­led her in, pres­su­ring her to clo­se Ger­ma­ny’s open door to the re­fu­gees, and plot­ting se­cret­ly for her suc­ces­sor.

Which, kno­wing Mer­kel’s po­li­ti­cal sur­vi­val skills, is pre­ma­tu­re. Lar­ge­ly aban­do­ned by her Eu­ro­pean neigh­bors and wea­k­e­ned do­mesti­cal­ly by the re­fu­gee cri­sis, Mer­kel re­mains Ger­ma­ny’s best in­ter­na­tio­nal cal­ling card, a fact not lost even on her most dis­af­fec­ted po­li­ti­cal al­ly.

But for the first ti­me in her de­ca­de-long ru­le, she is wi­thout a doubt vul­nerable. In a re­cent poll, Mer­kel’s Christian De­mo­crats had just 35 per­cent sup­port — a four-ye­ar low.

So it’s not too ear­ly to think the un­t­hin­ka­ble — li­fe in Ger­ma­ny wi­thout“Mut­ti,” or “Mom­my” Mer­kel. Her most vi­si­ble chal­len­ger is her vice chan­cel­lor, Sig­mar Ga­b­ri­el, the pug­na­cious he­ad of the So­ci­al De­mo­crats, the ju­ni­or part­ner in her own co­ali­ti­on. But the po­pu­la­ri­ty of Ga­b­ri­el and his par­ty has be­en fal­ling, not ri­sing, and Mer­kel’s re­al suc­ces­sor may co­me from wi­t­hin, per­haps so­meo­ne clo­sest to her.

Should her own par­ty lo­wer the boom on her, it may hap­pen in the run-up to Ger­ma­ny’s next fe­deral elec­tion in Oc­to­ber 2017. She would li­kely emer­ge with her po­li­ti­cal al­lies to tell Ger­ma­ny she will not run for a fourth term. Should that day co­me, the next chan­cel­lor may be stan­ding next to her. As of now, that is li­kely to be one of th­ree people:

Ur­su­la von der Ley­en, 57, the Ger­man de­fen­se mi­nis­ter, has a bio­gra­phy writ­ten in su­per­la­ti­ves. She’s a mo­ther of se­ven and for­mer phy­si­ci­an, and ap­pears al­most night­ly on te­le­vi­si­on tal­king tough with the Rus­si­ans, cal­ling for Ger­ma­ny to beef up its mi­li­ta­ry, or slamming de­fen­se spen­ding over­runs. The daugh­ter of a for­mer sta­te pre­mier, she has be­en a loy­al Mer­kel cabinet al­ly and a high­ly vi­si­ble suc­ces­sor-in-wait­ing. She is se­en as a com­pas­sio­na­te con­ser­va­ti­ve, pus­hing th­rough be­ne­fits for fa­mi­lies whi­le she was mi­nis­ter of la­bor.

The ma­le-do­mi­na­ted CDU, ho­we­ver, is just as lu­ke­warm on von der Ley­en as it has be­en with Mer­kel. The par­ty’s old guard fa­vors Wolf­gang Schäu­b­le, the Ger­man fi­nan­ce mi­nis­ter and for­mer cabinet chief

to Hel­mut Kohl. Schäu­b­le, 73, is one of Ger­ma­ny’s most ico­nic con­ser­va­ti­ves, a loy­al Kohl lieu­ten­ant who has be­en in a whee­l­chair sin­ce a 1990 as­sas­si­na­ti­on at­tempt. His own po­li­ti­cal ri­se thwar­ted by Mer­kel’s as­cen­si­on to po­wer, Schäu­b­le joi­ned forces with Mer­kel as her con­ser­va­ti­ve al­ter ego in the Greek debt talks. Schäu­b­le has be­en gent­ly need­ling his boss in pu­b­lic, rai­sing spe­cu­la­ti­on that he too may pre­vail in a pa­lace coup.

Fried­rich Merz, 60, a la­wy­er and for­mer CDU par­ty lea­der in the Bun­des­tag, is the dark hor­se of the par­ty’s neo­li­be­ral wing. Merz was an ear­ly cri­tic of Mer­kel, who un­sea­ted him as par­li­a­men­ta­ry whip in 2002. He then left go­vern­ment as Mer­kel’s po­li­ti­cal star ro­se. He now heads At­lan­tic Bridge, a trans-At­lan­tic po­li­cy group. In mo­re than two de­ca­des in po­li­tics, Merz built a re­pu­ta­ti­on as a fan of de­re­gu­la­ti­on, an ad­vo­ca­te for nu­cle­ar po­wer, and a foe of bu­reau­cra­cy, which is big bu­si­ness in Ger­ma­ny.

Ke­vin O‘Bri­en is edi­tor in chief of Han­dels­blatt Glo­bal Edi­ti­on.

Crown prin­cess or dark hor­se? Ur­su­la von der Ley­en, Fried­rich Merz and Wolf­gang Schäu­b­le (from left to right). Lea­ders | Glo­bal Edi­ti­on

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