German Chancellor Angela Merkel has always said she wants to serve out her fourth term, even after ruling out another re-election bid and stepping down last year as leader of her Christian Democratic Union. Yet health concerns have raised questions of whether she can continue to lead Europe’s largest economy until 2021, when a new German election is due. What happens if Germany’s first female leader, the European Union’s longest-serving head of government, chooses to step down early -- especially with her governing coalition with the Social Democrats fraying? The most likely outcome is an early election, but first the constitutional machinery would be put in motion.
1. Why are there health concerns?
Merkel, who turns 65 on July 17, has had three public trembling spells within a month, drawing attention to her health for the first time in her 14-year chancellorship. She’s said little about the issue in recent days, sidestepping a reporter’s question regarding physical exams she was reportedly given. “Let me just say this on the question of health, you can rest assured that I’m, for one, well aware of the responsibilities of my office and that I will act on questions regarding my health,” Merkel said at a press conference on July 10.
2. What happens if she steps down?
If Merkel were to announce her resignation, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier would have to name an acting chancellor until a new leader is elected by the lower house of parliament, or Bundestag. The likely scenario would be for Steinmeier to name her vice chancellor as caretaker. That’s Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, 61, a Social Democrat who may have his own chancellery ambitions.
3. How would a new leader be found?
Once the caretaker is in place, the Bundestag would seek to elect a new chancellor. It’s the German president’s responsibility to nominate a candidate, but he would do so in close consultation with Bundestag lawmakers and the ruling parties. The candidate would normally be from the ruling coalition or leading party, but can be anybody seen as having a chance to win more than 50% of the vote. Should no candidate win an absolute majority within 14 days of the first ballot, a new vote is held. This time, the candidate with the most votes can be put forward. If this tally-winner doesn’t forge a majority, the president has a choice: appoint him or her as chancellor anyway, or dissolve the Bundestag and call a new election. Once a new election is called, it has to take place within 60 days.
4. What’s likely to happen?
That all depends on whether Steinmeier can name a candidate that pleases both sides of the ruling coalition. Wolfgang Schaeuble, the former finance minister who leads the Bundestag, has been talked about speculatively as someone who could potentially be an agreed-upon steward to lead the government, giving the coalition parties time to prepare for a new national vote. The Social Democrats have ruled out Merkel’s successor as CDU party leader, the 56-year-old Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to avoid giving her an advantage in the next election and risk further alienating its own supporters. But given the precarious state of the ruling coalition and the fact the CDU-led bloc doesn’t have a clear majority, an early election is the likeliest outcome.
5. Is there any precedent for this?
Sort of. In 1974, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, engulfed in a scandal after his chief of staff was outed as an East German spy, resigned. Then-President Gustav Heinemann charged Brandt’s vice chancellor at the time, Walter Scheel of the Free Democrats, to lead the government in an acting capacity. Meanwhile the Social Democratic-led coalition agreed to name Finance Minister Helmut Schmidt as Brandt’s successor. The Bundestag elected Schmidt as the new chancellor nine days later -- and he went on to serve for eight years.
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