BERLIN — For the past two and a half years, since it became clear that Chancellor Angela Merkel would not run for office again, there’s been one great unresolved question in German politics: Who will succeed her?
Last week, after the two parties leading in the polls nominated their candidates, we got much closer to finding out. Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union eventually chose Armin Laschet, the party head. The challenger from the ascendant Green Party is Annalena Baerbock. With the addition of Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party, a credible candidate whose party is lagging behind in the polls, the lineup for September’s election is all but complete.
After over 15 years of rule by Ms. Merkel, Germany is at a crossroads. In Mr. Laschet, a 60-year-old regional governor, and Ms. Baerbock, at age 40 the youngest candidate ever to run for chancellor, voters have a stark choice between an icon of continuity and a herald of change. The person voters choose will shape the country’s future, perhaps for decades.
So who exactly are the candidates? And what would a Germany led by any of them look like?
Let’s start with Mr. Laschet. A practicing Catholic from Aachen, an old city that borders the Netherlands and Belgium, he shares with Ms. Merkel a Christian, humanitarian worldview. “He takes the C in C.D.U. very seriously,” Cem Özdemir, a Green Party lawmaker who has known Mr. Laschet for decades, told me. And like Ms. Merkel, Mr. Laschet is described as personally modest and mostly fair in political discussions and negotiations. “You usually get along with him quite well,” said Ulla Schmidt, a Social Democratic lawmaker who has known him for 35 years.
Open to new ideas and different positions, Mr. Laschet is notable for having many friends across the political spectrum. As a young lawmaker in the early 1990s, he was among the first in his party to meet with representatives from the Green Party — at a time when many in the C.D.U. still thought of the Greens as a bunch of eco-punks who could not be trusted to run anything, let alone a country.
Mr. Laschet was also one of the first in his party to openly embrace the idea that Germany is a country of immigrants. “He has earned himself a lot of respect in migrant communities, because he has listened to what they had to say,” Serap Güler, a Christian Democrat born to Turkish immigrants who serves in Mr. Laschet’s administration in North Rhine-Westphalia, told me.
Along with his broadly pro-immigration stance, Mr. Laschet is enthusiastic about education, a tough combatant of organized crime and a vocal opponent of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, with which he has vowed never to cooperate. A true man of the political middle, he could be expected to govern the country competently and fairly. But his candidacy, already weakened by his poor ratings, is a gamble that Germans want more of the same.
Ms. Baerbock, by contrast, offers something truly new. Born in 1980, she represents the generation that came of age after the country’s reunification. Raised in Hanover in the west, she now — by way of a stint in Brussels, where she was an office manager for a Green Party lawmaker in the European Union — holds a seat in Brandenburg in the east. Her approach is refreshingly relatable: A mother of two young children, who has spoken about the struggles of being a working mom, she’s unafraid to bring together the personal and the political.
But she doesn’t shy away from substantive debates — about climate change or foreign policy — or difficult political negotiations. In 2017, for example, when the Greens were discussing a possible coalition deal with the Christian Democrats and the Free Democratic Party (which pulled out at the last moment, scuppering the plan), Ms. Baerbock demanded the country end its use of coal and even brokered a compromise, impressing opponents and colleagues alike with her tenacity and command of detail.
Those qualities have been visible in her leadership of the party, a position she surprisingly won, along with a co-chair, in 2018. Famously afflicted by infighting between its left and right flanks, the Green Party under Ms. Baerbock has been notably united. That has contributed to the party’s remarkable ascendance, from a marginal environmental force to a serious contender for power. Once regularly polling at 5 percent or 6 percent approval, the party now stands at around 20 percent — with room to grow.
In its slow but steady rise, the party moved to the political middle, in style and substance, and toned down some of its more radical ideas, such as the dissolution of NATO. Even so, the party’s platform for the national election is notably far-reaching, calling for a “social-ecological transformation” and a zero-emissions economy. (The Christian Democrats have yet to release their platform.) Many of the document’s details remain vague, but it is radical in its language and ideas.
Were Ms. Baerbock to become the Greens’ first-ever chancellor — the party served as the junior partner in a national coalition with the Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005, but has never before stood a chance of reaching the chancellery — it would certainly be a great political experiment.
Inexperience, political adversaries say, would be a major hindrance. While it’s true that Ms. Baerbock has no government experience, she’s known for her perseverance and willingness to fight. In the race to become the party’s candidate, she started as the underdog — her co-chair, Robert Habeck, was expected to clinch it — but she systematically and strategically built support, both inside and outside the party.
It’s easy to see how she did it: In conversation, she comes across as a quick mind, as well as tough and disciplined. And she clearly has a talent for motivating and enthusing others. Unlike Mr. Laschet, whose candidacy was fiercely contested, she is loved by her party.
In recent months, the government’s failure to stem the tide of new coronavirus infections, bolster the health service and roll out vaccinations has stung. Germans seem ready for something new. The question is: How new will it be?
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