Three middle-aged white Catholic men from western Germany each believe they're the best choice to turn around the fortunes of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the center-right party that has dominated German politics since 1949 — and which has itself been dominated for two decades by the success of one woman.
Friedrich Merz, now on his third leadership bid in four years, Norbert Röttgen, on his second, and Helge Braun, Angela Merkel's chief-of-staff, have now all announced their candidacies in the race, with a winner set to be announced at the party conference in Hanover in late January.
It is not exactly a diverse lineup, as political pundits have spotted. "Of course, one could have one's doubts," said Ursula Münch, director of the Bavaria-based Academy for Political Education. "It's unfortunate that there are no women standing as candidates, but on the other hand, I don't think it makes sense to make personnel decisions based solely on balanced gender relations or whether they are of the same denomination. The important question is do you get someone as the leader who really succeeds in putting a renewal process into place?"
All three are considered old boys in the Christian Democrat power structure, though their political careers are very different.
Merz is currently seen as the front-runner, a man who lost a bitter internal power struggle to Merkel two decades ago and promptly disappeared from the scene. He then spent years amassing a personal fortune as a high-powered business consultant, lawyer and eventually board member for several major corporations, including wealth management colossus BlackRock.
Favorite, but unloved by the leaders
Merz reentered the political arena in 2018 when Merkel, his erstwhile nemesis, announced she would no longer be heading the party. He promptly positioned himself as a conservative neoliberal whose lucrative career outside politics gave him a populist edge against the stifling party establishment.
While the CDU rank and file adored Merz and his air of independence, party leaders thwarted his ambitions by twice closing ranks around their preferred candidates to succeed Merkel as chancellor: First Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and then the hapless 2021 election candidate Armin Laschet.
Now that members are allowed to elect their leader directly, Merz's time may have come. Münch thinks the party leadership has begun to accept that Merz is inevitable. "Clearly it's not been successful to keep wanting to stop Friedrich Merz," she told DW. "Constantly blocking someone can also paralyze a party and tear it apart."
Though popular in the party and well-known in the country, some political observers doubt whether the 66-year-old Merz would be the best man to rebuild the CDU over four years of opposition.
"His age alone probably makes him an interim solution if he's elected," said Wolfgang Seibel, chair of politics and public administration at the University of Konstanz. "He's also someone who in certain critical situations in the past hasn't shown himself to be very stress-resistant. Apparently, he only got over his two defeats with difficulty. He seems thin-skinned."
But more recently there have been signs that Merz has shown some flexibility about his ideas and a willingness to learn from the CDU's historic humiliation in September's election. Analyses have shown that the party lost the most votes to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, and Merz has shifted his platform accordingly for this bid.
As he presented his candidacy in Berlin, Merz made a point of underlining the importance of social policy. Also, his proposed choice for CDU general secretary is Mario Czaja, considered likely to appeal to the working-class demographic. The 46-year-old former Berlin social affairs minister snatched a direct seat from the Left Party in the German capital.
Merz's main challenger is Norbert Röttgen, another figure with a checkered relationship with Merkel. As environment minister in her second Cabinet from 2009 to 2012, Röttgen enthusiastically implemented the phaseout from nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
But Merkel replaced him a year later after the CDU performed poorly in a regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia, where he had been the lead candidate.
Röttgen came third behind Merz and Laschet in the last CDU leadership race in 2020, but the 56-year-old can hope for better chances this time, not least because he has presented himself as the liberal candidate who can blow fresh wind into a stagnant party. His young supporters have taken to posting selfies on social media, proclaiming themselves members of the #Röttgang.
"Norbert Röttgen is the candidate with the strongest caliber," said Seibel. "He has had a very prominent position both as parliamentarian as well as a minister. He is simply the most experienced. And he stands for conservative-liberal political center of the Christian Democrats — that's what distinguishes him from Friedrich Merz." For Seibel, Röttgen's interest in progressive social and economic policy is much more credible than Merz's.
But though Röttgen might appeal to the German population at large, he is seen as less of a favorite among the CDU's 400,000 members.
Braun: Uncontroversial outsider
The third man in the race is Helge Braun, Merkel's outoing chief-of-staff, whose service was rewarded in 2018 with a non-specific post in her final Cabinet — as Minister for Special Affairs.
The 49-year-old is considered an outsider in the leadership battle, seemingly destined to split the anti-Merz vote and so hinder Röttgen's chances, at least in the first round of voting, before withdrawing ahead of an inevitable runoff between Merz and Röttgen.
"I have no idea why Braun has put himself forward as candidate," said Ulrich von Alemann, professor of political science at Düsseldorf University. "He's not famous at all and he isn't a party politician. He's not even really a politician. He's more of an administrative expert. He might well be excellent at that." That, at least, is Braun's pitch to the party — a balanced manager to guide the party through its crisis.
Whoever wins, the next leader of the CDU will face an awkward task. The Christian Democrats are not used to being in opposition, and their policies have almost always been shaped by the demands of running the country. They now face four years of trying to create a distinct alternative ideology against a government that is already occupying the center ground.
"The CDU should commit to a real social market economy again, then it would speak to both the middle classes and the so-called little people," said von Alemann. "Secondly, it should be liberal, and not forget human rights in Germany and abroad. And thirdly, it needs to represent modern conservative values, including family values."
Straddling all those bases while modernizing the party is, of course, not going to be easy, especially when the three-party coalition that is about to take power already has most of them covered.
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