Merkel's health minister Jens Spahn considering run for Chancellor

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) – German Health Minister Jens Spahn is considering a run to take over from Dr Angela Merkel as chancellor, as competition to succeed her after September’s election heats up.

Mr Spahn, whose standing among voters has risen during the coronavirus pandemic, has been sounding out party colleagues to gauge support for a bid to be the conservative chancellor candidate, according to people familiar with the plan who asked not to be identified.

Mr Spahn’s gambit was reported earlier Friday (Jan 8) by Der Spiegel magazine and Bild newspaper.

The 40-year-old has long been considered a rising star in Dr Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc, and one poll last month showed he had moved ahead of her to become the nation’s most popular politician.

A protege of former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, Mr Spahn made a name for himself with attacks on Dr Merkel over her handling of the euro crisis and her migrant policy.

He put his hat in the ring in 2018 as a candidate for CDU leader, and although he came in third, his run was well received by the party and the media.

According to a Kantar poll in Bild last month, 52 per cent of those surveyed said Mr Spahn should play a major role in German politics in 2021, up from 28 per cent at the end of 2019. Dr Merkel’s approval rating was 51 per cent, up 11 percentage points from the previous year.

Since then, however, criticism has swirled around the start of Germany’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, putting Mr Spahn under pressure.

Dr Merkel was drawn into the controversy after a June letter from Mr Spahn was leaked to Bild. The message to the European Commission indicated that the German leader was behind the strategy to hand off vaccine procurement to the bloc.

The fallout could hurt his chances. An infratest dimap poll for ARD television published Thursday showed his approval rating had dropped by eight points to 56 per cent, the lowest since May last year, though he held on to second place behind Dr Merkel on 72 per cent.

The chancellor will step down following the next election in September after 16 years in power. The CDU will elect a new leader – who will have a strong say in the chancellor candidacy – at a virtual congress next week in a tight three-way race.

Mr Spahn has backed Mr Armin Laschet to become CDU chief, but the premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia has mounted an unconvincing campaign. Mr Friedrich Merz, a long-time Dr Merkel rival, and Mr Norbert Roettgen, a former environment minister, are also running.

The winner could step aside to allow Mr Spahn to run as chancellor if he’s seen as having the best chance of winning the election. Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder from the CSU sister party is also a leading contender to become the conservative chancellor candidate.

Mr Laschet – who has signalled he may be willing to cede the candidacy to someone else with stronger chances – said Friday he did not think that the controversy overMr Spahn’s handling of the vaccine programme would affect his own bid for the CDU chairmanship.

“Jens Spahn is one of the popular German politicians,” Mr Laschet said on ARD television. “But in the crisis it gets bumpy sometimes – there are problems, the vaccine doesn’t come as quick as you think or whatever. He’s doing a good job.”

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