BERLIN — A week after Angela Merkel’s chosen successor threw her conservative party into disarray by announcing she would step down, the candidates who have emerged seem to represent the antithesis of the centrist chancellor from Germany’s east.
All are men, all hail from the country’s former west, and all are pushing a new identity for the party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union. But they also offer very different visions of the future — some urging continuity with the Merkel era, others a clean break that could even shorten her tenure.
Coming at a time when Europe and the world are looking to Germany for renewed leadership, the choice of the next party leader is likely to have ramifications well beyond the party.
Uncertainty has enveloped the Christian Democrats since their current leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Ms. Merkel’s handpicked successor, announced last week that she would step down after a local chapter broke with party policy and voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany in electing the governor of the state of Thuringia.
Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, 57, met Wednesday with several potential candidates, though only one has declared his intention to run. Ms. Merkel, 65, has said she would not interfere with the selection.
Traditionally, party delegates choose their leader, but no details or timeline have been announced and the party’s delegates are not scheduled to meet until December. The leader of the party in power is typically chancellor as well, but the Christian Democrats split the job 18 months ago, envisioning a future in which Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer would eventually assume the chancellorship.
Germans are not expected to elect a new government until October 2021, which means the new leader most likely faces the daunting prospect of uniting a fractured party in the shadow of Ms. Merkel.
Alternatively, the leader could try to oust Ms. Merkel early, though she consistently ranks as the country’s most popular politician and the party’s partners in the government, the Social Democrats, have ruled out supporting a different chancellor.
Whoever becomes the Christian Democrats’ ninth leader will have to carve out an identity for the party at a time when its conservative and centrist wings are deeply divided and the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is flaunting its ability to upset the country’s democratic order.
“In terms of style, there are differences between each of the candidates,” said Martin Florack, professor of political science at Duisburg-Essen University. What is clear, however, is that people want change, he said. “After the Merkel years, people are sick and tired of the moderate, presidential thing.”
Armin Laschet: The Classic Man
Viewed as the choice who would provide the greatest continuity with the Merkel era, Mr. Laschet, 59, decided against running in the 2018 race for the party leadership. Since then, Mr. Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and leader of the party’s largest state chapter, has been biding his time.
Last weekend, he used the international platform of the Munich Security Conference to position himself as rooted in his party’s pro-European legacy. But he also focused on changes to the European Union, and criticized Ms. Merkel for taking “too long to react” to proposals from President Emmanuel Macron of France.
Mr. Laschet has strongly opposed cooperating with the AfD — drawing a line that the most conservative wing of the party has called into question, at least under some circumstances.
“Any cooperation, teamwork, support or coalition with the AfD is unacceptable for the Christian Democrats,” Mr. Laschet told his party on Feb. 5.
Friedrich Merz: The Outsider
Mr. Merz, 64, paints himself as an outsider, having been pushed out of the position of party whip in 2002 and leaving politics to make a personal fortune as the head of BlackRock Germany. He has since resigned from that position.
That political loss still stings for Mr. Merz, making the prospect of his leading the party alongside Ms. Merkel until fall 2021 hard to imagine, although he has the backing of the country’s business leaders and has proved popular with voters.
“Mr. Merz would not be able to exist alongside of the chancellor,” said Tilman Mayer, a professor of political science at Bonn University. “If he were to be elected party leader, he would try to also take the chancellery, but the Social Democrats would not go along with that.”
Still, his pledge to strengthen the Christian Democrats’ conservative profile has resonated especially in the country’s east, where the party has been bleeding support to the AfD.
Jens Spahn: The Young Upstart
At 39, Mr. Spahn is seen by many as too young to have a serious chance at Germany’s top job, although in neighboring Austria and France, young leaders have proved their ability to win elections and successfully steer their nations.
Mr. Spahn has used his office as Ms. Merkel’s minister for health to demonstrate that he is able to enact legislation. He has stressed that Germany will need to move more aggressively into the digital sphere if it hopes to remain competitive.
A practicing Roman Catholic who is married to a man, Mr. Spahn potentially appeals to a wide voter base.
If Mr. Laschet and Mr. Merz, both from North Rhine-Westphalia, were to find themselves in a head-to-head struggle, Mr. Spahn could emerge as a compromise, Mr. Mayer said.
Norbert Röttgen: The Fourth Man
In a move that surprised Berlin, Mr. Röttgen, 54, on Monday became the first candidate to declare his intention to seek the party leadership.
Early polls indicated that many voters may consider Mr. Röttgen, a foreign policy expert and former environment minister, to have the best mix of conservative values, political experience and ability to work with both the chancellor and coalition partners.
Surveys published on Wednesday showed Mr. Röttgen polling ahead of Mr. Merz, previously the public’s favorite.
A centrist who was close to the chancellor until she fired him in 2012, Mr. Röttgen, who is chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, has stated that Ms. Merkel should remain in office.
He has also insisted that the conservatives focus on environmental issues, a signal, perhaps, that he would be willing to work with the Greens, who have been nipping at the party’s heels and could become coalition partners.
Markus Söder: The Bavarian Option
Mr. Söder, the governor of Bavaria, is still considered a potential chancellor candidate in next year’s election, although he has said he would prefer to stay in his state.
After swinging to the right ahead of the 2018 state election in Bavaria, which he won, Mr. Söder has since taken on more pro-environment positions in his home state. Still, many see Mr. Söder as untried and lacking the experience to take on the country’s top office.
Formerly a fierce critic of Ms. Merkel, he has recently come out in support of her serving out her term.
“I believe that breaking with the chancellor is not right,” he said on ARD public broadcaster on Sunday, making clear the Bavarians will have a say in who runs for the chancellery.