BERLIN — Germany took a first step into a new political era on Saturday, choosing the next leader of Angela Merkel’s conservative party ahead of fall elections that will decide who succeeds her as chancellor.
In normal times, Armin Laschet, the longstanding Merkel ally who was elected to head her Christian Democratic Union, would almost certainly succeed her as chancellor of Europe’s most powerful country.
But these are not normal times.
A big year looms in German politics. Ms. Merkel has been the dominant political force and a face of stability in the country for more than 15 years. She has served as leader of Germany and a leader of Europe, steering the continent through successive crises. On her watch, Germany rose to be a dominant political and economic force in Europe for the first time since World War II.
Identifying a suitable successor for a chancellor who has been celebrated as a guardian of the Western liberal order has proved difficult. A first attempt failed a year ago after Ms. Merkel’s handpicked heir found herself so overshadowed by the chancellor that she decided not to seek the nomination.
At a time of exceptional fragility in United States democracy, violently on display in the riot at the Capitol last week, many inside and outside Germany are awaiting Ms. Merkel’s departure with some trepidation.
“Merkelism has been the antidote to Trumpism,” said Andrea Römmele, the dean of the Berlin-based Hertie School. “With both Merkel and Trump leaving office this year, the big question is: Whose legacy will win?”
In Germany, the direction of conservatism and the country itself is up in the air, and the person who will ultimately take over as chancellor will shape both.
Mr. Laschet is considered to be on the more liberal flank of the Christian Democrats and has been a loyal ally to Ms. Merkel. Currently governor of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, he notably supported her decision to welcome more than a million migrants in 2015 and 2016.
Promising both continuity and change, Mr. Laschet appealed to delegates on Saturday in a speech that was personal but also sweeping. He spoke of his father, a former miner who had to trust fellow miners underground irrespective of their background, and urged fellow conservatives to learn from the democratic crisis playing out on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Trust is what carries us and what broke in America,” he said. “When a president polarized, sowed discord and distrust, systematically lied, he destroyed stability and trust.”
“Continuing to be successful doesn’t mean continuing the same way,” Mr. Laschet said. “The headwinds are much tougher. The forces against us have become a lot stronger,” he added. “We will have to do a lot of things differently and in a novel way after the pandemic.”
Yet there is no guarantee that Mr. Laschet will be chancellor, even though the party is expected to win the largest share of votes in the coming election.
At about 37 percent, opinion polls currently give the Christian Democrats nearly twice the level of support of any other political party. The liberal, pro-refugee Greens come second at about 20 percent, followed by the Social Democrats, Ms. Merkel’s longstanding coalition partners, with about 15 percent.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party has plateaued at about 10 percent since the arrival of the coronavirus, although as the economic fallout from the pandemic unfolds, the party remains an unpredictable and disruptive force in German politics.
It is unclear how much of the Christian Democrats’ lead is a reflection of Ms. Merkel’s popularity — and therefore how stable it is. Mr. Laschet, who lags far behind the chancellor in surveys, acknowledged as much.
“There are a lot of people who above all like Angela Merkel and only after that the C.D.U.,” Mr. Laschet said. “The reputation of the chancellor here and abroad can be summarized in one word: trust.”
“We now need this trust as a party,” he said. “This trust cannot be given as a gift, it cannot be inherited, it can’t be just handed down. This trust needs to be earned.”
Analysts like Ms. Römmele said that the party’s popularity might fizzle when it sinks in that Ms. Merkel is really leaving.
“The election in the fall is wide open,” she said.
That is the reason the Christian Democrats are unlikely to settle the question of who will lead the party into the next election as prospective chancellor until late spring, after a couple of difficult state elections for the party that will also indicate how voters react to Mr. Laschet as leader.
Mr. Laschet, 59, takes over as party leader from Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the defense minister, who in 2018 was handpicked by Ms. Merkel to succeed her and narrowly won a leadership contest at the time. After failing to cement her grip on the party and inspire voters, she announced her decision to step down last year.
If Mr. Laschet fails to gain popularity with voters, he might come under pressure to cede the chancellor nomination to another possible candidate who has yet to declare his intention to run: Markus Söder, the popular leader of the state of Bavaria and head of the Christian Democrats’ conservative sister party.
Relatively young, ambitious and calculating, Mr. Söder has morphed from a fierce Merkel critic during the 2015 migrant crisis into one of her most loyal allies during the pandemic. One of the rare politicians to match the chancellor’s approval ratings, he is twice as popular with voters as Mr. Laschet is.
“When they sit down in March, they will see that the numbers are a lot better for Söder than for Laschet,” said Herfried Münkler, a political commentator and political scientist at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Whoever ends up securing the nomination for chancellor, it looks certain to be a Western German man with a background in law who will cut a very distinct figure from Ms. Merkel. A vicar’s daughter and scientist from the former Communist East, she has shaped today’s Europe more than perhaps anyone else.
“You can definitely say that Ms. Merkel, who stands for a certain type of leadership — listening deeply, having a lot of patience, moderating, someone who has an incredible talent for accommodation — that this person in this position is not replaceable,” Mr. Münkler said.
“In that sense, an era is ending,” he said. And although he said the shift would not change Germany’s role over all, “it will change the way Germany brings its weight to bear inside the European Union.”
For all the uncertainty hanging over German politics this year, both supporters and critics of the chancellor say that after four legislative terms, it is time for a change.
“Merkel’s departure is the end of a very good period in German history,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European history at the University of Oxford. “She has been the personification of the best Germany we’ve ever had,” he added. “But she hasn’t got everything right.”
Ms. Merkel’s leadership has, at times, lacked vision and ambition, Mr. Garton Ash said. She was cautious about deeply overhauling the European Union, challenging autocratic leaders in countries like Hungary and moving Germany into a digital and ecologically sustainable future.
And forces beyond Ms. Merkel are already at play.
If, as many expect, the Christian Democrats end up going into coalition with the Greens, it might toughen Germany’s stance on China and Europe’s budding autocrats and force its own industry into a more digital and greener future.
“The shape of the next coalition matters more than the personality of the next chancellor,” Mr. Garton Ash said.
Melissa Eddy and Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.