It seems as if German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been on the world stage for so long that the adage of familiarity breeding contempt might be apt. Hardly so for Germans, who view her retirement from politics with some trepidation.
The events of these past weeks have hardly inspired them with confidence that whoever takes over the German chancellorship after federal elections due in six weeks’ time, will be able to fill the comfortable courtly shoes vacated by the longest-serving German leader of modern times.
As things stand now, there is the likelihood that Armin Lashet, the premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia will be chancellor — but he’s not doing himself any favours now with German voters. He has been forced to apologise for plagiarism and stealing another writer’s work over his 2009 book Die Aufstiegsrepublik — The Upwardly Mobile Republic — penned when he was his state’s integration minister.
“I would like to expressly apologise, because care in composing texts and the observation of copyrights are for me, among other things, a question of respect toward other authors,” he said somewhat awkwardly in acknowledging that he lifted text from another work, adding that he had arranged for “an immediate audit of the book.”
Big shoes to fill
The offence comes just weeks after the leading Christian Democrat candidate for the Chancellery was seen making jokes and laughing with abandon as he stood behind the German president while touring flood-devasted areas where some 100 died and thousands lost their homes.
That the incident occurred in North Rhine-Westphalia, Lashet’s home and sodden turf, hardly stood him proud. If anything, the chapter has merely left German voters ruefully wondering who will lead them forward and asking if, maybe, Merkel might postpone her retirement.
The likelihood is that after they have cast their votes in the federal election on Sep. 26, no party will have enough seats to form a government on their own, and a period of political football will see them end up with a chancellor several leagues below the European champion status of Merkel.
Just 40 years of age, Annalena Baerbock has been co-chair of the Greens since 2018 and is an international jurist views by be supporters see her as a safe pair of hands with a good grasp of detail. But for many German her lack of governing experience is a shortfall they might find difficult to overlook.
True that the recent floods have placed climate change at the top of the national agenda — but can she be trusted when it comes to making other hard financial decisions or standing up for Germany in Brussels, or indeed for European interests on the world stage?
Laschet is the national party chairman of the Christian Democrats and leads Germany’s most populous state. At 60, he has a lot of experience — and has always had a jovial attitude but can he be taken seriously after his recent missteps?
A non-interventionist by instinct, he has been caught on the wrong foot several times in Germany’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. If that’s his only fault, he certainly hasn’t been alone, with Merkel herself saying the pandemic was the nation’s greatest challenge since the Second World War as she admitted making mistakes too.
Germany’s Social Democrats have been around since the days when the modern nation was first formed in the 1870s and Otto Bismarck was Chancellor. It opposed and survived the Hitler regime but has hardly inspired confidence in recent elections.
This time around, Olaf Scholz, who is Finance Minister, a former mayor of Hamburg and Merkel’s deputy in her grand coalition, holds the socialists’ banner. He has a reputation, however, for being somewhat uninspiring — unlikely to appeal to Germans en masse.
The Free Democrats look to the 42-year-old Christian Lindner who has headed their party since 2013. The reserve officer and son of a teacher is also from North Rhine-Westphalia and studied political science and has already said he would support the CDU in forming a government after the elections. He might be media-savvy but still lacks real leadership experience.
An interesting dilemma
Should Germans want leaders from the Left party, the pairing of 63-year-old Dietmar Bartsch and 39-year-old Janine Wissler as co-leaders make for an interesting dilemma. Bartsch is from East Germany, a pragmatist who has led his parliamentary party since 2015 while Wisseler hails from western Germany, is further to the left and has been the part’s co-chair since February. But who might be chancellor and the party would unlikely have enough seats to demand the chancellery.
If there’s right turn in Germany, then the Alternative for Germany (AfD) offer up co-chair Tino Chrupalla who joined the joined the far-right party in 2015 after being attracted by its anti-immigration platform. From Saxony, she has been in the Bundestag since 2017.
The other co-chair is Alice Weidel, a 42-year-old economist who party faithful have failed to warm to. But again, unless there’s an absolute earthquake in electoral politics not seen since Hitler’s rose to power, it’s hard to see the AfD being in a position to lead Germany.
If anything, the lack of clarity and the obvious leadership vacuum being created by Merkel’s departure has simply cemented her reputation as being one of the world’s most successful democratic leaders. Yes, there have been those who tried to denigrate her.
Russian president Vladimir Putin once brought a Labrador dog into a meeting with her — she is famously afraid of dogs. Former US president Donald Trump in his abrasive way called her “stupid” and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi once left her waiting for 15 minutes while he chatted on the phone.
In her time in office she has dealt with five UK prime ministers, four French presidents and seven Italian prime ministers, and her recent visit to Washington last month merely confirmed that she has seen off four US presidents.
And yes, she will be sorely missed. Germans are feeling that already — and she’s not even gone.