The Front-Runners: Five Western Leaders In Waiting – Analysis


By Caleb Mills

In 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the darling of global politics. The representative from Papineau had just swept Stephan Harper’s government from power, ending nearly a decade of right-wing rule. At just 43, the young and charismatic Trudeau was largely heralded as the next face of western leadership. Pundits and reporters alike spoke of a new “Camelot” in Ottawa. Nine years later, the glowing comparisons to Kennedy are all but gone, replaced by a reality once thought impossible. With an approval rating of 28% and a nation seemingly ready for change, Trudeau is fighting for his political life.

The prime minister’s position encapsulates a phenomenon which is spreading specifically throughout Western democracies. According to research conducted by Morning Consultant, approval ratings for these leaders are currently at historic lows. While the unpopularity of figures like British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden is well-documented, Trudeau’s predicament demonstrates that this affliction is not exclusive to the major powers. French President Emmanuel Macron, also once considered a new kid on the block himself, is struggling with an approval rating of 23%. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is not far behind, with an approval rating at 26%. While the origins of these slumping poll numbers vary considerably, the ultimate consequence in each instance is singular: a changing of the guard in Western politics.

This crisis in leadership is all the more concerning when considered within the current geopolitical context. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine nears its third year, military analysts and politicians warn that Kyiv is dangerously close to capitulation. The brutal Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza continues to decimate the strip’s civilian population, and human rights experts are warning of catastrophe as the IDF prepares to seize Rafah. In Asia, China has elevated tensions in the South China Sea, and has initiated large-scale naval drills meant to intimidate Taiwan. Whatever the outcome, the men and women charged with charting tomorrow’s course in foreign relations will inherit a world more fractured and chaotic than ever since the end of the Second World War.

An understanding of who these leaders could be is not only prudent, but necessary to appreciate the significant ways in which they could alter the trajectory of global affairs. The following five opposition leaders selected for this exercise come from democratic, Western states with both an unpopular incumbent and an upcoming general election in which a transition of power could plausibly occur. It is important to note that the inclusion of a politician on this list is not a straightforward prediction of their future election, but rather an acknowledgement of its feasibility based on polling or conventional political consensus. Using publicly available data on their positions and background, this piece builds a brief profile of each politician within the context of their individual political environments.

Friedrich Merz (Germany)

Four years after Chancellor Angela Merkel retired from public office, her Christian Democratic Party is still searching for a leader who can fill the political void. Intermittent experiments, including with longtime acolyte and successorAnnegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, failed to yield the satisfactory results that were once promised. Without solidified leadership or a unified platform, the 2021 federal election saw the left-wing Social Democrats take power for the first time since 2005. However, with Chancellor Scholz’s popularity at an all-time low, the CDU’s Friedrich Merz is quietly preparing his party for a return to power.

former executive at BlackRock, Merz’s political career spans several decades, including terms in both the European Parliament and the Bundestag. However, his ascendancy to leadership in 2021 was far from guaranteed. Merz, a staunch conservative, was a longtime party rival of Merkel in the early 2000s, which coincidentally corresponded with his early retirement in 2009. His return to politics shortly before Merkel stepped down in 2021 saw two unsuccessful bids for leadership, losing both times to key allies of the former Chancellor. Following the CDU’s disastrous 2021 electoral collapse, Merz finally won the leadership contest in a landslide, earning 62% of the party vote on a secret ballot.

Born in 1955, Merz grew up in the town of Brilon in West Germany. Before studying law at the University of Marburg, Merz served in the German army’s artillery corps. In the 1980s after graduating law school, the North Rhine-Westphalia native accepted a position as a judge in the city of Saarbrücken. Later, he returned to private practice working in the chemical industry. Merz, who speaks three languages including English, had a long and successful legal career before becoming serious about politics. In 1981, Merz married future judge Charlotte Gass, and together they have three children.

By most metrics, Merz is a reliably conservative politician whose ideology is largely defined by the Western neoliberalism prominent during the Cold War. The former soldier has urged Chancellor Scholz to send more weapons to Ukraine, and even traveled to Kyiv to meet with President Zelenskyy personally in 2022. On domestic issues, Merz has largely towed the centrist conservative party line, supporting the legalization of gay marriage and criticizing EU legislation that would ban internal combustion and hybrid car engines by the 2050s. However, Merz has also veered to the right on several contentious issues, most notably migration and conscription. He’s encouraged a cautious approach to “political Islam” and has openly called for the reintroduction of Germany’s mandatory military service requirement.

After spending decades in Merkel’s shadow, the environment finally seems right for Merz to make a serious run at the Chancellorship. Amidst the backdrop of economic inflation and the war in Ukraine, surveys show that Germans are quickly turning against a Scholz government still in its infancy. The CDU commands an astounding lead in opinion polling for the 2025 general election, with projections showing them defeating Scholz’s governing coalition by as much as 15%. If elected, a Merz administration would symbolize a notable transition in German politics, signaling not only the end of Merkel’s remarkable grip on the German right, but also a return to the hawkish foreign policy of the Cold War years.

Keir Starmer (United Kingdom)

The recent announcement by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that the country’s next election would be held in July came as a surprise to many. It was assumed that Sunak would try to buy more time to continue making his case to an electorate exhausted after a decade of Tory governments. Nevertheless, the prime minister affirmed his intention to “fight for every vote” outside Downing Street during a torrential downpour. But with polls showing the Conservatives headed for a historic electoral collapse, this may prove to be a disastrous gamble.

It’s been nearly 15 years since Keir Starmer’s party was last in power, and the political wilderness has not been kind. Alongside the mishandling of sexual assault allegations and widely publicized cloakroom infighting, Labour has struggled for years move on from an earned reputation of antisemitism. Jeremy Corbyn became the face of these accusations during his recent tenure as leader of the opposition, however the problem is far from a recent one. In 2018, former London mayor Ken Livinigston was forced to resign after a series of bizarre comments insinuating that Adolf Hitler was a former Zionist. By 2019, the issue had become so bad that the Equality and Human Rights Commission was forced to launch an investigation into the reports.

In many ways, Starmer’s political career has been shaped by the fallout of these scandals. Elected to Parliament in 2015, Starmer cautiously served in a series of shadow cabinet positions under Corbyn, including shadow secretary for Brexit. Following the 2019 general election, in which Labour experienced its worst defeat since 1935, Starmer announced his candidacy for leadership on a moderate platform seen as a departure from Corbyn and the traditional left. Winning 56.2% in the first round, Starmer ascended to leadership after serving only five years in Parliament, cementing a quietly metaphoric rise in British politics.

Since becoming leader in 2020, Starmer has implemented aggressive measures to reform Labour’s malign public image. He created a new internal complaints system which would better preserve anonymity and bring accusations of wrongdoing directly to a special committee of the party. Starmer fired shadow minister Long-Bailey for circulating an article which contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Perhaps most shockingly, Starmer oversaw the suspension of former leader Corbyn from the party altogether in 2020.

Starmer has made it clear that if elected, Labour’s first priority will be a series of colossal domestic investments. These priorities include expanding the capacity of the NHS to include 40,000 more appointments per week, increasing the number of police officers on the streets, and hiring thousands of more teachers. Additionally, Starmer has made clear that the nationalization of the railway system is still a priority, as well as the creation of a government-backed energy company to compete with the private sector. However, some of his proposed policies speak to the centrist approach he’s embraced in recent years. Starmer is committed to cracking down on illegal immigration, advocating for the creation of a Border Security Command. Starmer also supports expanding government security powers, including monitoring of suspected financial accounts linked to smuggling.

It’s speculated that Prime Minister Sunak’s decision to move up the general election is designed to capitalize on recent positive economic developments. So far, it appears that his Conservative government is content to roll the dice on a summer election. However, polls show Labour with a large lead over the incumbent government, with projections showing them taking as much as 44% of the national vote. Worse yet for Sunak, these numbers don’t reveal the true extent of the Left’s advantage. Labour enjoys substantial leads in all six of the United Kingdom’s major voting regions, including Scotland and the South. Additionally, Starmer’s party is the favorite in all age groups under 65, and made serious gains among Tory voters from 2019. Barring any last-minute scandals or serious polling errors, Starmer is all but set to lead Labour to its first general election victory since 2005.

Pierre Poilievre (Canada)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is struggling to elicit confidence from a nation once enamored by his youth, charm, and vision. Polling from the Toronto Star shows Conservatives with leads as high as 19% in a potential matchup, setting the stage for Canada’s first Tory government in nearly a decade. It’s an opportunity that Pierre Poilievre, leader of the opposition, has arguably been waiting for his entire life.

Born in 1979 to a 16-year old single mom, Poilievre was adopted by a French-Canadian couple in Alberta. Growing up in Calgary, Poilievre spent his summers camping and working as a paperboy for the local newspaper. Poilievre graduated from the University of Calgary in 2008, where he studied International Relations. In 2017, he marriedAnaida Galindo, with whom he has two children.

Perhaps more than any other politician on this list, the MP from Carleton is a bona fide political junkie. At 17, Poilievre attended the 1996 national convention for the right-wing Reform Party. At 25, he won his first parliamentary election by unseating a governmental cabinet member. By 2013, Poilievre had joined Prime Minister Harper’s government, where he’d serve for two years in various positions. Following Harper’s defeat in 2015, Poilievre became an active member of the opposition, cementing himself as a populist firebrand committed to hammering Trudeau on unbalanced budgets and government spending. After attaching himself to the 2022 Trucker Convoy protests that swept through Ottawa, he leveraged his populist image into a successful run at Conservative party leadership.

Poilievre prides himself on his populistic approach to politics, and his rhetoric has been compared to that of former US President Donald Trump. However, in practice, Poilievre’s politics are far more moderate than his words. Rather than decrying high levels of immigration, Poilievre has instead focused on repealing Canada’s carbon tax and integrating crypto currency into the economy. Poilievre has also proposed cutting funding for the state-run CBC, and has threatened to create a free speech requirement for educational institutions receiving government funding. Interestingly, Poilievre has also vowed to force major cities like Toronto to expand housing, including measures such as converting federal property into state housing. Poilievre has also expressed his support for Ukraine, but has generally avoided making comments on the conflict in Gaza.

If elected, the symbolism behind Poilievre beating Trudeau would speak volumes. The heir to Canada’s most powerful political dynasty, Justin Trudeau’s career in politics has largely been seen as the natural continuation of the youthful leftism his father inspired in the 1970s. This generation-spanning “Trudeaumania” constitutes the proverbial giant which Canadian conservatives have tried to slay for decades. It’s an imposing task, but it’s the type of challenge Poilievre has eagerly chased his entire career.

Marine Le Pen (France)

In 2022, President Emmanuel Macron made history by becoming the first French chief-executive to win reelection in two decades. Having accomplished this feat against far-right rival Marine Le Pen, who again advanced to the election’s second round, it might be tempting to overlook the meteoric rise of her National Rally party. However, the numbers behind Macron’s victory tell a different story.

Five years after their first matchup in 2017, Le Pen dramatically improved her performance. The National Rally leader jumped nearly 10% in second-round voting, and outpaced Macron in the industrialized and rural regions of the country. Le Pen’s 41% was the best showing of a far-right presidential candidate in modern French history, and set the stage for dramatic National Rally gains in Parliament later that year. These results demonstrate the gradual legitimization of the French far right, which is by no means accidental. Since assuming leadership in 2011, Le Pen has worked tirelessly to reform her party’s once sultry public image. This campaign of dédiabolisation, a term used to describe her efforts to make the French far-right more palatable, has transformed the National Rally into a serious  political contender.

Born in 1968, Le Pen is the daughter of infamous far-right reactionary Jean-Marie Le Pen. Growing up, Marine Le Pen saw up-close the complications which can afflict a political career, including an assassination attempt on her father in 1976. Le Pen studied law at university and worked as a lawyer throughout the 1990s. She would later jointhe National Rally as a legal assistant.

After managing her father’s unsuccessful presidential campaign and serving in various party positions, Marine Le Pen became leader of the National Rally in 2011. In the following year’s presidential election, Le Pen finished third in first-round voting with 18%. It was a noticeable showing, and Le Pen would prove in the following years that it was far from a fluke. In 2017, she was the primary opponent of a young Macron, where she led her party to its first second-round appearance since 2002. Despite losing, Le Pen and the National Rally received 33% of the popular vote, almost doubling what her father earned twenty years before.

Politically, Le Pen’s social and cultural beliefs easily define her as a far-right populist, although not quite as extreme as her father. Le Pen regularly attacks what she perceives as the Islamification of French society, claiming in 2017 that “France is a university for jihadists.” She has also advocated for banning the use of Hijabs in public spaces, and has claimed that antisemitism in France is the result of “Islamism.”  Le Pen is perhaps best known however as an avid proponent of immigration restrictions, going so far as proposing an 80% cut in 2017. For Le Pen, the “two totalitarianisms” of globalization and radical Islam have long been some of her biggest priorities.

While cultural grievances and xenophobia are her best-known attributes, Le Pen’s lesser-known political positions are just as worthy of examination. Although at one point supportive of France leaving the EU, she has since advocated alternatively for institutional reforms. Le Pen has repeatedly expressed her strong belief in the French secular tradition, calling for the “separation of mosque and state.” Although she denounced the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Le Pen has a long history of pro-Moscow sentiments. She has expressed her belief that the 2014 seizure of Crimea was not illegal and told Russian media in 2011, “I openly admit that, to some extent, I admire Vladimir Putin.”

Le Pen’s problematic past and controversial beliefs have not kept her from becoming a serious contender for the presidency. On the contrary, polls for the 2027 presidential election show Le Pen in the lead. A recent Cluster17 Survey reported that Le Pen would receive 32% in the first-round, with second-round projections showing her beating François Ruffin, another highly touted candidate. Additionally, research from the French polling firm Ifop indicates Le Pen would easily defeat leftist rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon, another expected candidate. These favorable numbers have translated to down ballot contests as well. As of late May, the National Rally is also projected to win a majority of seats in both the French Parliament and the French seats in the European Parliament.

Before 2022, the last time a French president won reelection it was at the expense of Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie. After finishing with a humbling 17% in the 2002 French presidential election, a dejected and resentful elder Le Pen lamented the result as, “a stinging defeat for hope in France.” It was a historic political thrashing, and a stinging rebuke of the family’s principles which Marine Le Pen doubtless remembers.

After decades on the political fringe, Marine Le Pen is approaching perhaps her last opportunity at removing that stain once and for all.

Donald Trump (United States)

In 2020, Donald Trump became only the fourth US president in a century to lose his bid for re-election. In a contestdefined by a global pandemic, civil unrest, and record-setting turnout, former Vice President Joe Biden defeated Trump by over 7 million votes. However, the transfer of power proved anything but peaceful, with the president’s supporters storming the capital in an attempt to stop the congressional certification of the election. Undeterred, Trump continued to question the integrity of the results, setting up a rematch this November that has been four years in the making.

Born in 1946, Donald Trump grew up in New York as the heir to his father’s real estate empire. Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, he would take over the family business in 1971. Despite substantial financial losses throughout the 1990s, Trump’s billion dollar enterprise would garner significant cultural attention, including his own TV show in the 2000s.

Having never held public office or served in the military, Trump’s entrance into the 2016 presidential race was met with some skepticism by political pundits. However, Trump soon established himself as the Republican Party’s frontrunner, connecting with voters on a platform which prioritized tax cuts and a crackdown on illegal immigration. In a historic political upset, Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, winning traditionally liberal-leaning states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. It was the beginning of a tumultuous tenure in office, including two congressional impeachments and an investigation into potential Russian election interference.

Despite historically low approval ratings, it still took an exceptional crisis to break the traditional stranglehold that incumbents have on the White House. The COVID-19 pandemic, which ultimately took over one million American lives, was at its height in the months leading up to the presidential race. Polls showed that most voters felt Trump’s response to the pandemic had been too slow. Tapping into the malcontent, Biden promised a more robust response to the pandemic and an experienced hand to steer the ship of state.

Four years later, President Biden’s approval rating has plummeted to 38%, and election polling suggests that Trump is ready for a comeback. The New York native is already the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, following a decisive primary season in which he made quick work of his fellow party opponents. As of late May, Trump leads Biden in national polling averages, including in key swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan. Trump has continued to campaign on the issues which won him office four years ago, and has claimed responsibility for recent social conservative victories like the overturning of Roe v. Wade on the campaign trail.

The former president’s priorities have remained largely the same as they were four years ago. The presumptive Republican nominee has again promised to go after illegal immigrants and stressed law and order as a cornerstone of his campaign. In an interesting departure from traditional conservatives, Trump has so far refused to support a national abortion ban, instead advocating for individual states to legislate the issue for themselves. On foreign policy, Trump has continued to support a hardnose approach towards Beijing, proposing a universal 10% tariff on all imports from China. In addition, the former president has continued to voice doubts about NATO, and has reportedly proposed ending the war in Ukraine by pressuring Kyiv to cede territory to Russia.

If victorious, Trump would become only the second president in American history to serve non-executive terms in office. The businessman’s unilateral style of leadership could also have a significant impact on the conflict in Ukraine, and also shift relations with key allies in the Pacific and Europe. However, there remain concerns as to Trump’s commitment to the democratic process. Beyond his refusal to acknowledge his electoral defeat four years ago, Trump has also expressed a desire to operate as a “dictator.” Regardless, Trump’s return to the White House would have a profound impact on foreign relations, and possibly set the stage for a fundamental restructuring of the international order.

Geopolitical Monitor is an open-source intelligence collection and forecasting service, providing research, analysis and up to date coverage on situations and events that have a substantive impact on political, military and economic affairs.

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