BERLIN — The race to succeed Angela Merkel was supposed to be on hold because of the coronavirus.
Inevitably it has continued, and even gathered pace.
While the usual political rituals, from the speeches to the bratwurst and debates, have been put off for now, the candidates (four-and-a-half or five men are in the running, depending on how you count) have wasted no opportunity in trying to brandish their bona fides.
Luckily for the candidates, Merkel, whose standing among Germans has hit new highs amid the crisis, hasn’t thrown her hat in the ring. Yet.
Her universal popularity notwithstanding, Merkel seems unlikely to back away from her pledge not to seek another term if for no other reason than she rarely reverses course. That said, the crisis has also doused any lingering hopes that she might exit before the end of the current legislative term, which expires in the fall of 2021.
If Merkel’s center-right bloc can hold on to its recent gains — the Christian Democrats (CDU) are now polling at near 40 percent, a jump of more than 10 percentage points since the crisis hit — there’s little doubt that the next chancellor will come from the party’s ranks.
The delayed leadership contest is for the chairmanship of the CDU itself, a post Merkel gave up in late 2018. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s hand-picked successor, stepped down from the position earlier this year following a rocky tenure, triggering a new race. Her successor was originally supposed to be chosen at a party congress this month, but the process was delayed indefinitely due to the pandemic.
Pre-crisis, the presumption was that one of the three men officially in the running — Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia; Norbert Röttgen, a senior MP who leads the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee; or Friedrich Merz, a former senior party official and MP — would take over the party and then run for chancellor.
So far, it’s hard to imagine any of them has the right stuff to run Europe’s largest and most important country.
All were slow off the mark to recognize the gravity of the corona crisis as late as mid-March.
Just as the country was preparing to go into lockdown, for example, Merz announced he had appointed a new campaign manager, posting a photograph of himself and his strategist grinning in front of a deserted Brandenburg Gate.
After the party convention was delayed, Röttgen called for a mail-in ballot, arguing that it was imperative the party settle on a new leader.
The jockeying prompted a stern response from Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is managing the contest.
“Country first, then the party, then the individual,” she said in Merz and Röttgen’s direction.
Shortly after, Merz, 64, came down with COVID-19 and was out for weeks. He has since returned but has struggled to find footing from his home office.
Laschet, the third man in the field, has fared little better. His state, Germany’s largest by population, has been the country’s corona ground zero with the highest number of infections. It has also accounted for about one-fifth of COVID-19 deaths in Germany. Nonetheless, Laschet has been at the forefront of those pushing for an accelerated lifting of restrictions.
In a widely-viewed talk show on Sunday evening, he went as far as to question the wisdom of following the advice of virologists. His appearance was widely panned, especially in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Laschet “didn’t have his facts straight” and his presentation was “unworthy of a potential chancellor candidate,” the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, one of the state’s largest newspapers, concluded.
Despite their best efforts, the crisis has made the three men vying for the CDU leadership look like white dwarfs in Merkel’s supernova orbit.
That’s why speculation has shifted elsewhere, toward Bavaria and Merkel’s cabinet.
Markus Söder, the leader of Bavaria, has received particularly high marks for his handling of the crisis in his state. He has pushed in the opposite direction to Laschet, calling for stricter measures instead of rapid relaxation. Still, Bavarians are thankful. His approval rating in the state hit 94 percent this month, the highest ever for a politician in Germany. In a recent national poll, Söder had the highest approval rating of any German politician, besting even Merkel.
Bavarian politicians typically struggle beyond the state’s borders. The state views itself as semi-autonomous, at least in spirit, and has a distinct culture from the rest of the country. Even so, Söder’s folksy charm and crisis management have clearly resonated with voters nationwide, feeding speculation that he could be the one.
His biggest challenge would be to convince the CDU. Söder leads the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, and together they form Germany’s center-right bloc with a joint parliamentary group. They have also always fielded a common candidate for chancellor.
But the only time the much-larger CDU has ever accepted a CSU standard-bearer was when the conservatives’ chances of winning were slim. And both times that happened, they turned out to be right.
For now, Söder insists he has no greater aspirations and is content to lead Bavaria.
The other unofficial candidate is Health Minister Jens Spahn.
Like Söder, Spahn’s star has risen during the crisis as the face of Germany’s frontline response.
Long before most Germans understood the magnitude of what was coming, Spahn was out warning them. He now ranks alongside Merkel and Söder as one of Germany’s most popular politicians.
In recent weeks, he’s also become the country’s international COVID-19 spokesman, appearing on American TV networks CNN and CNBC to explain the success of Germany’s virus-fighting strategy.
Spahn, who ran for the CDU’s top post in 2018 and lost to Kramp-Karrenbauer, decided not to enter the latest contest directly. Instead, he’s supporting Laschet, forming what some see as an American-style ticket. If Laschet wins the leadership race, Spahn, who turns 40 next month, would be his clear No. 2 and positioned to one day succeed him.
But the recent reversal of fortunes — Laschet’s weakness and Spahn’s strength — have presented an alternative scenario: Laschet could become CDU chief and Spahn the party’s candidate for chancellor.
Though separating a party’s leadership from the chancellery has rarely ended well in Germany, there’s plenty of precedent for it.
Of course, a renewed outbreak could end up dashing Spahn’s chances.
And if the virus has taught us nothing else, it’s that predictions are perilous.