When German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down following September’s election after 16 years in power, it won’t just be her legacy that’s at stake. Germany’s leadership of Europe will be under scrutiny. Over four terms leading coalition governments, Merkel put her stamp on the continent and the wider world, defending moderation and a global vision that came under attack from nationalists around the planet. Yet criticism of her handling of Covid-19, resistance from regional leaders to her lockdown policies and allegations some conservative lawmakers profited from the pandemic have undermined confidence in her administration and make it less certain that her party will remain in government.

1. How has the political landscape changed?

While Merkel’s bloc still led in the polls in late March, it had slumped by around 10 percentage points since the start of February and the Greens were closing the gap. It was shaping up to be the most unpredictable German election in decades, with several different coalitions possible after the Sept. 26 vote.

2. Who will her party choose to run as chancellor?

Armin Laschet, who runs the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, moved into pole position after winning the leadership of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union on Jan. 16. As the contender who most resembled her in policy and style, he beat off two rivals. While he would normally be the conservative bloc’s candidate for the election, Markus Soeder, leader of the CDU’s Christian Social Union sister party in Bavaria, is more popular and can also make a strong claim to run for the alliance. Laschet has said a decision will be made by late May, but pressure is building to speed up the process.

3. What’s holding it up?

The CDU crashed to its worst results since World War II in state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on March 14, weakening Laschet. He has tried to differentiate himself from Merkel, with the two clashing over how to deal with the pandemic. Merkel criticized him and other regional leaders for not enforcing Covid-19 restrictions strictly enough, while he warned the chancellor not to impose control on pandemic policy. The decision on who will run rests with Laschet and Soeder, and while it needs approval from their two parties’ leadership committees, that’s no more than a formality.

4. What about the opposition?

The Greens have gone mainstream under co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, although they have yet to decide which of them will be their chancellor candidate. They have never led a national government, but were coalition partners with the Social Democrats between 1998 and 2005, and have run the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg for almost a decade. They are likely to be kingmakers, either forming a majority with the CDU/CSU or leading a three-way tie-up with the SPD and either the Left party or the liberal Free Democrats. The SPD, for years the CDU’s main rival, has been hurt by coalitions with Merkel and could support the Greens if the parties do well. The SPD candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, would need his party to overtake the Greens and potentially secure backing from the Left to become chancellor.

5. What have polls been showing?

According to a March 31 Forsa poll for broadcaster RTL, support for Merkel’s bloc, which climbed as high as 40% in spring 2020, had fallen to just 27%. The Greens were in second place on 23%, the highest in more than a year, while the Social Democrats, the junior partners in Merkel’s government, were third on 15%. Soeder still had the highest rating after Merkel at 52 points, followed by Habeck on 47, Baerbock on 45 and Scholz on 44. Laschet scored just 37.

6. What are the challenges for the next government?

• Battling the pandemic: Beating Covid-19 and overseeing Germany’s economic recovery will be the top priority. Merkel’s successor will also need to shore up Germans’ faith in the EU’s ability to deliver, after recriminations over its responsibility for vaccine rollout delays.

• Steering the EU: French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to fill the leadership vacuum that Merkel is leaving behind. Her successor will need to confront disputes over democratic standards in Poland and Hungary and high debt in southern Europe, particularly in Italy, while also reinforcing the message that following the U.K.’s example and leaving the EU is not a solution.

• Reconnecting with the U.S.: Germany is America’s biggest and wealthiest ally in Europe, but came under strong criticism during the presidency of Donald Trump. Joe Biden will have the chance to repair the relationship with Merkel’s successor.

• Managing relations with Russia and China: Germany has kept diplomatic channels open to Moscow and Beijing at a time when allies such as the U.S. and U.K. have been more confrontational.

• Strengthening NATO: Macron said the alliance was succumbing to “brain death” in 2019, and Germany has a pivotal role to play in giving it a sense of direction and making sure it’s adequately funded.

• Dealing with Turkey: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expanded his country’s regional footprint and laid claim to energy and territorial interests in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, escalating tensions with Greece and Cyprus.

7. What does this mean for Europe?

During Germany’s presidency of the EU in 2020, Merkel helped broker a deal on the bloc’s pandemic relief fund, which broke ground on jointly backed debt. Under Merkel, Germany’s fiscal discipline created friction with other EU countries, notably Greece during the financial crisis, but was meant to set an example. While those constraints have been removed during the pandemic, Merkel still sees Germany as a role model. How much debt spending Germany needs to offset the virus will be a major theme of the campaign.

8. How big an issue is immigration?

Much of Merkel’s recent trouble stemmed from her decision not to shutter the German border to hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015 and 2016. In the 2017 federal election, her bloc took its lowest share of the vote since 1949. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, garnered 12.6% of the vote, making it the first far-right party since 1953 to win seats in the lower house, the Bundestag. Since then, the pandemic has pushed immigration down the agenda and the AfD has seen its support ebb.

9. What about climate change?

Merkel engineered Germany’s exit from nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan, and there is still strong support in Germany for environmental action. With the EU seeking to build momentum behind its own Green Deal, the elements are there for a shift in German energy infrastructure and the industrial model that it powers.

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