BERLIN — Germany took its first step into a new era on Saturday, choosing the next leader of Chancellor’s Angela Merkel’s conservative party ahead of fall elections in which she will not be on the ballot.
In normal times, Armin Laschet, the longstanding Merkel ally who was elected to lead the party, the Christian Democratic Union, would almost certainly succeed her as chancellor of Europe’s most powerful country.
But these are not normal times.
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. She also helped Germany rise to be a dominant force politically and economically in Europe for the first time since World War II.
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 with some trepidation Ms. Merkel’s departure after the election, which will be held in September.
“Merkelism has been the antidote to Trumpism,” said Andrea Römmele, the dean of the Berlin-based Hertie School of Governance. “With both Merkel and Trump leaving office this year, the big question is: Whose legacy will win?”
In Germany, although there is little risk of a U.S.-style crisis, the future direction of conservatism and the country itself is up in the air. 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 supported her decision to welcome more than a million migrants in 2015.
Mr. Laschet promised both continuity and change in a speech on Saturday that was both personal and sweepy. He referred to his father’s past as a miner, and urged fellow conservatives to learn from the democratic crisis playing out on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Continuing to be successful doesn’t mean continuing the same way,” he said. “The headwinds are much tougher. The forces against us have become a lot stronger.”
“We will have to do a lot of things differently and in a novel way after the pandemic,” he said.
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 onset of the pandemic.
It is unclear how much of the Christian Democrats’ lead is a reflection of Ms. Merkel’s popularity — and therefore how stable it is.
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.