Leadership for a post-Merkel era, 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