The back-to-back decisions finally bring some clarity on who will be fighting to take Merkel’s mantle when she retires.
Six months ago her party appeared to have a clear path to leadership once more, but frustration over the pandemic and a distinct lack of public enthusiasm over Laschet means nothing can be taken for granted.
The winner will represent a new era for Germany — and, by extension, for the European Union as the bloc’s most powerful economy and one of its political heavyweights.
Laschet, 60, is seen as the epitome of the traditional political careerist within Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Baerbock, 40, is a rising star in the Greens, which are expected to become part of the coalition government after the election and could be in a position to take the chancellor post.
“The contrast is quite stark,” Peter Matuschek, political analyst with pollsters Forsa. “She’s much more dynamic.”
Who is Armin Laschet?
Laschet is the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. He was elected leader of the Christian Democrats in January. That would normally make him a shoo-in to become the party’s candidate for chancellor.
But Laschet’s lack of popularity with voters meant that was not clear until Tuesday, after a struggle against the more popular head of the Christian Democrats’ sister party. Politically, he has not fared well over the course of the pandemic, pushing for early openings of schools and businesses.
He says he can turn around his lackluster polling and has tried to present himself as a consensus candidate, capable of working with the Greens. “As a country we must become better, faster and more modern,” he said Tuesday.
When it comes to policy, he’s seen as a continuation from Merkel.
The CDU’s David McAllister, a member of the European Parliament, called Laschet a “tried-and-true European” and committed to transatlantic alliances.
But he’s also been portrayed by critics as soft toward the Kremlin.
In one past tweet, he called for more solid evidence regarding Moscow’s role in the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018 after a Russian-linked nerve agent was discovered.
Similarly to Merkel, Laschet said he wants to keep issues such as the nerve agent poisoning of Alexei Navalny separate from energy ties to Russia. He supports finishing Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline between Germany and Russia.
The battle for Laschet will be to change his image among voters: “It’s devastating,” said Matuschek. According to a recent Forsa poll, only 4 percent of more than 2,000 respondents saw him as “dynamic” and crucially only 4 percent saw him as projecting “strong leadership.”
Who is Annalena Baerbock?
Baerbock has been co-leader of the Greens since 2018 as the party transformed from its roots in the more antinuclear, environmentalist movements to the more mainstream party.
She called her candidacy “an invitation to lead our diverse, strong, rich country.”
Her candidacy was greeted favorably by much of the German news media.
“Baerbock’s choice is wise,” read an editorial in the Stuttgarter Nachrichten, calling it “zeitgeisty to trust a 40-year-old with no government experience with the most important political office in the state.”
Volksstimme, a newspaper in Magdeburg, lauded her “fresher style” as a break from Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democratic Party, another main party.
On foreign policy, the Greens have a much more critical stance when it comes to Russia, but it’s hard to know how that could change if it were no longer in opposition, Matuschek said.
When the Greens were a coalition partner in government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, holding the Foreign Ministry, the party struggled to reconcile its peacenik principles with policy, he said, particularly when it came to the war in Kosovo.
“The party is much more pacified today, much more pragmatic,” he said.
Still, the Greens will have to battle with increased public and media scrutiny before the election and questions over Baerbock’s experience in governing.
What are their chances?
It’s unclear how much of an impact Merkel’s retirement will have on the Christian Democrats’ standing, while the pandemic adds another level of unpredictability to the campaign.
After receiving a boost early in the pandemic, Merkel’s CDU has dropped around 10 percentage points in the polls over the past year, erasing earlier gains.
It had been predicted to win around 27 percent of the vote. But those forecasts were made before Laschet was clearly the chancellor candidate.
According to a poll by Forsa and RTL/NTV channels earlier this week, only 65 percent of expected Christian Democrat voters said they would still back the party with Laschet as candidate.
Vaccinations are picking up in Germany, and voters could be less frustrated with the party’s handling of the pandemic by September.
“It has never been more likely than today that we might get a Green chancellor,” Matuschek said.
“It’s an incredibly intense election year,” said Thorsten Faas, a political sociology professor at the Free University of Berlin. “Almost everything seems possible.”