- - Tuesday, March 23, 2021

BERLIN —  Germany — and Europe — have been bracing for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure this year ever since she announced in 2018 that she would step down.

With elections approaching in September, there is no small amount of speculation about who will replace the European Union’s longest-serving leader and its chief crisis manager. None of the likely candidates in Germany has anywhere near the global status and gravitas that Ms. Merkel has accumulated over her 15 eventful years in power.

After German state elections this month marked another setback for Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), figuring out who can replace her has become even more elusive.

“That’s the big question,” said Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank.

“Normally, the chairman of the party would also be the chancellor candidate … but the CDU could decide to bet on a different ticket. There is talk of perhaps recruiting someone else,” she said. “And after [the March 14 elections], it looks like they do need to do something because with Merkel not on the ballot, the CDU is looking quite vulnerable.”

Germans will hold a series of regional test votes in the next few months ahead of the Sept. 26 federal elections for the Bundestag and simultaneous state elections in Berlin, Mecklenburg-Pomerania and Thuringia.

In a vote that many were watching for omens for federal elections, the CDU lost support to the Greens in two of its traditional strongholds: the western states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The results were the worst ever by conservatives in those two states.

The results were blamed in part on the CDU’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Germany, widely seen as a role model for its response at the beginning of the crisis, is facing a third wave of outbreaks and remains in partial lockdown after three punishing months of closures.

Also not helping are burgeoning corruption concerns. Over the past few weeks, three conservative lawmakers have resigned over graft scandals. Two of them are accused of profiting from helping mask manufacturers get government contracts. Another CDU lawmaker resigned this month amid a criminal investigation examining his ties to Azerbaijan.

Still, some say it’s just one more crisis for Germany’s “Mutti” — “Mommy” — and her party, whose popularity rose during the early months of the pandemic.

“There was some Merkel fatigue before, in 2019, but then her popularity got a huge boost along with the CDU because of the pandemic and how she handled it,” said Ms. David-Wilp. “But now as things are starting to fall apart — there’s no vaccinations, there’s not enough testing, there’s pressure to open up, and we’re practically in a third wave — [March 14 elections] showed that voters are tired of” this government.

Even so, in a country with a famously risk-averse electorate, some voters say Ms. Merkel needs to reconsider her promise to step down. Slightly more than half of Germans surveyed recently said they feel anxiety because Ms. Merkel, 66, won’t be the chancellor after September.

“It’s not the right time for Merkel to leave,” said Jonas, 20, a voter in Berlin who said he preferred not be identified by his full name. He said he wants the chancellor to serve another term. “The last 1½ years were her most challenging, and frankly, I wouldn’t like to be in her position.

“It’s sad because we grew up with her,” he added. “The other candidates are not very suitable and do not represent this future generation.”

Still, some are ready for a change.

On Twitter, hashtags such as #MerkelMussWeg (Merkel must go) and #MerkelStoppen (Stop Merkel) are trending upward, and thousands are complaining about lockdown restrictions, the slow rollout of vaccines and other problems.

“The only fear we need to have is of the unfathomable incompetence of our government. … This government is destroying the country, mocking our fundamental rights and costing lives,” said a Twitter user that goes by “Fuer Deutschland” (For Germany). A post by “LotherReinhard” read, “There is also a time after Merkel! Thank God! We look forward to that in 2021!” 

Identity crisis

Still, many bemoan the lack of a clear successor. Some say Ms. Merkel is leaving the CDU without a clear party identity other than herself. Polls show that 45% believe the chancellor is the most important reason to vote for the CDU.

Angela Merkel led the CDU for 18 years as party leader and 16 years as chancellor but never followed a direction. After the Merkel era, the CDU is a party that has been programmatically gutted and is now also completely unsettled …,” historian Andreas Roedder said in an interview with Die Welt daily newspaper. “There has been no substantive programmatic emphasis of its own.”

Ms. Merkel’s preferred successor is North Rhine-Westphalia state leader Armin Laschet, who recently became chair of the CDU. But only 14.7% said in a recent poll that he was a suitable candidate for chancellor.

Markus Soeder, Bavaria’s leader and the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the more conservative sister party of the CDU, is a more likely candidate. He has the highest approval rating of all candidates at 44%, another poll found.

Although the conservatives maintain a lead over the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) nationally, the CDU’s declining support could mean a chancellor from another party, especially if the Greens can build on striking gains in recent months.

In the March 14 state votes, the Greens held their lead in Baden-Wuerttemberg and nearly doubled their support in Rhineland-Palatinate. Nationally, they are in second place, polls show, with 19% of the electorate. The CDU is polling at 31%.

The Social Democrats, a distinctly junior partner in a “grand coalition” government with the CDU in Berlin, trails in third place, just ahead of the AfD, which performed poorly in state elections. AfD lost a third of its support in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the worst of any party.

“We thrive with direct contact with our voters, but we weren’t able to do that [during the pandemic], AfD leader Alice Weidel told public broadcaster ARD. She also attributed a loss of support to an announcement this month by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution that it will place some party members under surveillance for domestic extremism.

In 2016, a year after the start of the refugee crisis when Germany, at Ms. Merkel’s direction, took in almost 1 million Middle Eastern refugees, the AfD soared to become the largest opposition party in parliament as fear of migrants spiked.

This year, though, immigration dropped off of the top five concerns of voters, polls showed.

Analysts say the pandemic drowned out the far-right party’s messaging and infighting has caused further damage. But the biggest blow has been the surveillance by intelligence agencies, which analysts say has turned off voters, especially those who have chosen the party as a protest vote.

Regardless of which party wins in September or who takes the helm of Europe’s biggest economy, some Europeans hope the next chancellor will be the cheerleader for Europe that Ms. Merkel has been and will be as effective at defusing crises and standing up to Moscow and Washington.

Although Ms. Merkel is credited with keeping Germany stable and prosperous, she also is heralded for keeping the bloc together.

“I don’t think Europeans should worry because whoever the next chancellor is, he or she will be pro-Europe …,” said Ms. David-Wilp. “Germany needs Europe. Without it, Germany wouldn’t be where it is today.”

• Jabeen Bhatti contributed to this article.

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