Considering how her reputation was tarnished by the 2015 refugee crisis, the coronavirus has provided German Chancellor Angela Merkel with an opportunity to secure a positive legacy during her final days in power. 2021 will mark her last year as Europe’s most powerful woman having presided over Germany’s chancellorship for over 15 years already.

Euronews reports on a poll that the news organization conducted which found that Merkel’s handling of COVID-19 made her popular with seven out of ten Germans that were polled at the time. This is due to the low number of COVID-19-related deaths that Germany has had. Both the French and the Italians who were polled at the same time also had a positive view of her when asked to rate their own respective leaders’ performance during the coronavirus crisis.

Will Markus Soeder Succeed Merkel?

However, the timing of Merkel’s popularity boost is poor and it has not stopped many from anticipating who her successor could be. The German Chancellor’s recent visit to Bavaria has sparked speculation in the German press that the state’s Prime Minister Markus Soeder could become Merkel’s successor.

Nonetheless, she has publicly refused to endorse the Bavarian Premier as her successor. The German Chancellor commented that Soeder is a good Prime Minister, but she refused to comment further. Merkel’s comments have not prevented Bild, Germany’s largest newspaper, from referring to the Bavarian Prime Minister as “the crown prince.”

It is understandable why many in the German media view him as Merkel’s natural successor. Soeder managed to establish himself as the coronavirus started to cripple Germany. He was among the first of Germany’s 16 state premiers to impose lockdowns and introduce mass testing programs.

Soeder is an Established Figure

By inviting the German Chancellor to Herrenchiemsee, a castle on an island in a lake where Germany’s constitution was drafted in 1948, this could be portrayed as a purely calculated move for the Bavarian politician to present himself as a national leader, as opposed to a regional one.

Soeder’s consistent national television appearances contrasts with those of Armin Laschet, the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, who is also considered to be the other front-runner for the conservative nomination. According to Reuters, she has had a tougher time mastering the pandemic, with a number of outbreaks occurring at a slaughterhouse in Guetersloh, which infected thousands of workers.

Until Merkel clarifies who her successor is, these reports are just rumors for now. It was widely anticipated that Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded Merkel as the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) party leader, would also become Chancellor as soon as Merkel retires. Regardless, she resigned earlier this year and said that she would not run for Chancellor in the 2021 federal election.

Merkel’s Reputation is in Tatters

As Merkel proceeds with persuading her European counterparts to support a €750-billion package to rescue the EU’s economy from the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus, these rumors about her successor seek to undermine her leadership during a critical time for the rest of the EU. With the Netherlands stating that a deal is unlikely over the weekend, this could have devastating consequences for her chancellorship and speed up the process of succession.

Even if Merkel succeeds in negotiating an EU-wide rescue package over the weekend, her longer-term legacy in Europe is in tatters. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte met Merkel last week and pushed for EU-wide financial reform, but as Euractiv’s Kenneth T. Stiller argues, she has had a considerable period of time to implement EU reforms that could have deepened European solidarity. For example, in 2011-12 she could have urged her counterparts to support steps toward a fiscal union to prevent the eurozone from exploding back then like it is now.

Although Merkel’s popularity is riding high overall, it could be short-lived depending on the outcome of this weekend’s European Council meeting. Either way, many in the German media are concentrating on the future. Although that damages the CDU in the short-term, it is important to highlight that Merkel’s successor has some substantial challenges ahead in preserving European solidarity. It is no wonder many journalists are speculating who could become the next German Chancellor in 2021.

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