For the first time in 16 years, Germans going to the polls will choose a new chancellor. And in many ways the circumstances are comparable to 2005: the two major parties are locked in a tight battle for first place, and with it the coveted first dibs at forming a governing coalition. In 2005, Angela Merkel of the centre-right CDU prevailed by 4 seats - this time, it looks like the centre-left Social Democrats might be ascendant by the same margin. But circumstances are dramatically different to 2005 too: the pandemic is still burdening the nation, heavy flooding highlighting the impacts of climate change - which should propel the German Green Party to its best ever result - and the integration of over a million Middle Eastern refugees ensuring the far-right AfD remain a persistent force, especially in its Saxony heartlands. Either way, Germany continues to be beset by long-term problems, issues that’ll have to be chipped away at over the next decade. So, much as Merkel’s tenure has seen a financial crisis, European refugee crisis, Greek Debt Crisis, Brexit, and now the coronavirus, it appears inevitable that Germans will turn to another technocratic crisis manager for the next four years.
Armin Laschet may not have initially been the person Merkel had hoped for: a controversial man within his own party, and a man of numerous slip-ups (for example, his laughing at the floods in North Rhine-Westphalia during his time as regional CDU leader there). Yet she, perhaps reluctantly, endorsed him as her successor. His politics, for the most part, reflect hers: with a notable softness towards Putin, a tendency towards the European Union and particularly desiring to strengthen its power to fight international terrorism and organised crime. He made himself known - in 2020 meeting with the French President Emmanuel Macron alone three times. Furthermore, both Merkel and Laschet have, over time, developed a symbiotic relationship - during the European migrant crisis in 2015, he became a fierce defender of Merkel’s migration policies. Merkel was arguably instrumental in Laschet’s victory during the 2017 state election in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Then there’s Olaf Scholz, the candidate running ‘against’ Merkel’s party. Bizarrely, he is possibly even more similar to her than Laschet. Another fellow resident of Hamburg, he worked his way first through the legal profession and then Hamburgian local politics. Scholz nominally represents the centre-left of German politics, but in truth he is much closer to the centre ground Merkel has defended for the past 15 years: he served as her Minister of Finance and Vice-Chancellor, with a relatively cordial relationship with the CDU in government. Margaret Thatcher once remarked her greatest achievement was New Labour: Scholz is surely Merkel’s most visible effect on Germany. In a telling statement, Scholz said he opposes a coalition with the clear left-wing party ‘Die Linke.’ His coalition would therefore necessarily include the right-of-centre FDP. He has no plans for radical reform, arguably no plans for the country and no distinction from the woman he could replace. He’s even started using Merkel’s distinct ‘diamond’ hand-gesture in party advertising, and he marketed himself as an heir to Merkel during the election debates. The question at the end of the day is whether Scholz would lead a remarkably different government to the one he has participated in since 2017. The answer… probably not.
Even in a major upset, if Annalena Baerbock of the Greens somehow manages to outperform polls and surge to the chancellorship, she is yet another product of Merkel’s politics. Perhaps one of the most institutionalised politicians in the Green party, her image as a moderate figure who has big plans for Germany’s future is the spitting image of Merkel in 2005. What other country would be satisfied with the choice of a centrist journalist, centrist lawyer and centrist career politician? Perhaps the most telling statistic is that for the majority of the campaign period, the answer of most Germans to chancellorship polling? Don’t know.
Germans have long had a soft spot for a competent, managerial style of government. From the founder of the Federal Republic Konrad Adenauer, to Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel, Germany’s leaders have been focussed on the long term, making steady reforms to the economy and welfare state, whilst taking any crises that came their way with the seriousness and clear direction that are so endearing. And it seems that may remain - I’d argue: long may that continue! A strong German chancellor has been crucial for the stability and security of Europe and its defining institution, the European Union, for the past 70 years, and one will likely be necessary if the EU is to continue to thrive. The alternative: a more volatile French President, in the middle of his re-election battle, assuming ascendancy over the EU seems likely to rock the boat - the EU is, to quote its Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a ‘slow-moving tanker’. Trying to reverse the direction of the tanker too violently may result in disastrous consequences; a mediating, powerful and respected Chancellor is not only necessary to secure Germany’s future but also to cement European co-operation.