Next-generation German leaders ready to move into position
These six emboldened young politicians are starting to breathe down elders’ necks
SDP’s Andrea Nahles: doesn’t shy away from tough talk on security and immigration, demanding a crack-down on refugees in Germany who lie about their identity or age. Photograph: EPA/Omer Messinger
With Berlin coalition talks under way, and negotiators on a strict interview – and leak – ban, the only certainty in the German capital is that politics is facing a generational shift.
Acting chancellor Angela Merkel (63) is trying to cobble together a third grand coalition between her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), led by Martin Schulz (62). But the unprecedented interregnum – likely to last to Easter – has seen a slump in support for both parties from their disastrous election results in September, with a majority (52 per cent) of Germans opposed to another grand coalition.
That has emboldened younger German politicians to start breathing down their elders’ necks. And though German politics favours stability over putsch, here are six ambitious young leaders to watch.
The SPD’s strong man is a woman: the 47-year-old parliamentary party leader, a Catholic divorcee mother of one who joined the party almost 30 years ago. As a young MP in the party’s hard left wing, she clashed with Gerhard Schröder over his neoliberal reform agenda. Though more centrist of late as labour minister, she plans to push hard – in talks and in office – the classic SPD platforms of fairness and inclusion, whether reform of Germany’s two-tier health system or better pay for carers. She doesn’t shy away from tough talk on security and immigration, demanding a crack-down on refugees in Germany who lie about their identity or age.
“We cannot be lied to as a state,” she said at the weekend, “I already teach my seven year-old that.”
Usually a state premier of Saarland, a tiny state in Germany’s southwest, has little to say in Berlin. But the low-key 55-year-old known as AKK is now a front-runner to succeed Angela Merkel as CDU leader, if the incumbent has a say in the matter.
She echoes Dr Merkel in being a smart, underrated woman in politics with a dry sense of humour. But she differs too: a Catholic western mother of three who is leftish on family/labour policies but with traditional conservative views on abortion and marriage equality. Asked recently if she could imagine switching from Saarbrücken to Berlin, AKK gave a classic Merkelesque answer: “It’s pointless ruling things in or out because things often happen different to how one plans.”
If the Merkel era ends in disaster and/or a CDU purge of Merkel loyalists, then Jens Spahn is the man to watch. With enough self-confidence to power a small town (he once corrected Queen Elizabeth during her Berlin visit), the tall 38-year-old is a puzzle to some. Germany’s most prominent homosexual politician recently married his partner, a gossip magazine editor, but his political career is built on traditional value conservatism. He challenged Dr Merkel to snatch a place in the CDU executive committee and, after serving as deputy finance minister, is likely to move up to cabinet while keeping a sharp knife handy. After watching closely the rise of Emmanuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz, his own Achilles heel is his own impatient ambition.
If Dr Merkel secures a fourth term, Markus Söder is the man most likely to make her life miserable. Dubbed “Prince of Darkness” for his hardline conservative politics as much as his curious aura, Mr Söder is poised to become state premier of Germany’s powerful and prosperous southern state of Bavaria. His predecessor Horst Seehofer blocked the 51-year-old as long as he could, accusing Mr Söder of being “eaten up by ambition” with “character weaknesses”.
Now Mr Söder has just nine months to rebuild support for his ailing Christian Social Union (CSU) before state elections in September. The quickest, most effective way to win over independently-minded Bavarian voters: to attack and undermine the government in Berlin, in particular Dr Merkel.
Dismissed for years by insecure male rivals as “coastal Barbie”, the 42-year-old Social Democrat (SPD) entered the big leagues last year by switching from the federal family ministry in Berlin to become governor of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Germany’s northeast.
Raised in East Germany, the mother of two has made gender equality – in particular assisting working mothers – her political priority. She is openly skeptical of a third grand coalition with Dr Merkel and the CDU and is well-placed – in the state parliament in Schwerin – if Dr Merkel’s fourth term ends in a bang.
The failure of a CDU coalition with the liberal FDP and Greens was a gift for the 48-year-old father of four and state energy minister in Schleswig-Holstein. Dubbed “half cowboy, half philosopher” by the conservative Welt daily, Mr Habeck is a frontrunner to become co-leader of the Green Party. As someone who pleases both party camps – “fundamental” and “realo” camps – he is likely to hold the door open to a CDU-Green alliance next time around.