Germany’s conservative party meets on Friday to decide on a successor to Angela Merkel, its leader of 18 years. Whoever wins is tipped to become the future chancellor and take over Merkel’s role as the most powerful politician in Europe. Three candidates have thrown their hats into the ring to become the new chair of…
Germany’s conservative party meets on Friday to decide on a successor to Angela Merkel, its leader of 18 years. Whoever wins is tipped to become the future chancellor and take over Merkel’s role as the most powerful politician in Europe.
Three candidates have thrown their hats into the ring to become the new chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Over 1,000 party delegates will be eligible to vote on what has been described as the most momentous decision for the party in nearly 50 years and one which will decide the future direction not only of the CDU, but also of their country and their continent.
The party’s current general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, millionaire businessman Friedrich Merz, and Jens Spahn, currently health minister in Merkel’s government, are all in the running.
Initially described as the front runner, Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, who has 18 years of frontline political experience including six years as leader of the state of Saarland, has faced tough competition from Merz, the CDU’s former parliamentary leader who has parachuted in from his high-powered job as an economics lawyer in the banking industry, insisting he can win back many of the millions of voters the party has lost to right-wing populism.
The vote is due to take place this afternoon, and unless one candidate wins a clear majority, is expected to continue into a second round runoff between the two most popular candidates. A final result is expected this evening.
The party will bid farewell to Merkel who is due to give a speech to delegates this morning, and is expected to be showered with bouquets and warm tributes. Despite the party increasingly having turned its back on her since the refugee crisis of 2015 – which saw her accused of failing to secure either party or parliamentary backing before her decision to allow over one million refugees to enter Germany – she is recognised as someone who has had a profound impact on modernising the party.
For the past few days German television has repeatedly replayed highlights from Merkel’s time as leader, including footage of her nervous acceptance speech in 2000, when a somewhat hesitant Merkel sporting a pudding bowl haircut appeared almost embarrassed to be taking on the role of the leader of one of Europe’s most powerful conservative forces. She became chancellor five years later.
The CDU faces a dilemma today, to either keep itself on the course set by Merkel – who was determined to secure the centre ground and has turned it into a champion of gay marriage, a minimum wage and a quota for women in politics – or to take it more to the right in a bid to win back the voters it has lost to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Kramp-Karrenbauer, variously dubbed mini-Merkel or Merkel’s crown princess, offers a similar path to her mentor’s, although the 56-year-old has been adamant she will carve out her own distinct line.
Merz, by contrast, has indicated he would move to the right, and has promised that by the next parliamentary election in 2021, he will be able to cut the size of the AfD in half.
Spahn, once seen as a front runner in his attempt to succeed Merkel, has been considered an outsider ever since Merz announced his decision to run less than half an hour after Merkel said she would no longer be standing for the CDU leadership on 29 October, after the party suffered a disastrous election result in elections in the state of Hesse.
Merkel, 64, has expressed her determination to stay on as chancellor for the remaining three years of her term in office. Fifty-six per cent of Germans support her decision to do so.
Her reason not to stand for re-election as head of the party is seen as strategic, allowing the party – which she joined at the age of 35 following the collapse of the Berlin Wall – to recalibrate itself and have time to prepare itself for the next election.
But it also allows her to elegantly choreograph her own departure from the political stage, something few top leaders are able to do.
The strategy is not without risk. She will have to work closely with the next CDU head, who could attempt to undermine her and could also potentially oust her as leader.
Merz, who was pushed out of his position as CDU parliamentary leader by Merkel in 2002 and is still said to be smarting over the humiliation, would be her toughest potential partner. Kramp-Karrenbauer is likely to be less antagonistic and to want to work in tandem with her.
Of the delegates selected by region to vote, 150 are MPs. Observers believe that they at least will be likely to be more in favour of continuity – that is Kramp-Karrenbauer – so as not to risk losing their seats if there is a new election.
A poll by Deutschlandtrend of CDU members – which gives no clear steer as to how the 1,000 delegates will decide – showed Kramp-Karrenbauer to be on 47%, up 1% from a few days ago, Merz on 37, a rise of six points, and Spahn on 12.
CDU members as well as over 1,600 journalists and hundreds of diplomatic observers from around the world had poured into the northern port city of Hamburg by Thursday evening ahead of the vote.
It marks the first time since 1971 that the party has been able to vote for a new leader. Most decisions have been made in backroom deals in which the party members have had little or no say. The longest-serving head of the party was Helmut Kohl, who held the post between 1973 and 1998.
The two leading contenders
The 56-year-old lawyer has an 18-year unbroken track record of holding positions of responsibility within the CDU. She has been interior minister of the state of Saarland before becoming its leader, a position she held for six years, and earlier this year was elected to the post of general secretary of the CDU securing 99% of party support. She remains very loyal to the small town of Püttlingen in the western German state where she was born in 1962, the fifth of six children, and where she still lives. Those who know her insist that that connection with her origins is the reason for her the down-to-earth nature and strong sense of reliability for which she is well known.
Married to a mining engineer with whom she has three children, AKK faced the challenge during the leadership battle of both wanting to appear to support Merkel as well as signalling that she would take the party in a new direction. What she has said about the Merkel era became something of a slogan for her candidacy: “One cannot arbitrarily continue in the same vein, neither can one dismiss it.” While she generally supported Merkel’s open door policy towards migrants, she has admitted that grave mistakes have been made, and has pushed for a ban on criminally convicted refugees being allowed back into Germany. She has pledged to listen to the party more than Merkel did, and to be less passive, and more willing to challenge the status quo, repeatedly using the rather complex phrase: “the normative power of facts”, (“die normative Kraft des Faktischen”) to argue: “I will be less inclined to accept as immutable fact that things are the way they are.”
A staunch Catholic, AKK has spoken out in favour of a ban on doctors who carry out abortions being able to advertise their services, after a court case propelled the topic into the headlines, and is also openly sceptical about the “marriage for all” law campaigned for by her opponent, Jens Spahn, who is married to his male partner. He has accused her of comparing his union to incest and polygamy.
Kramp-Karrenbauer admits to having been taken aback when Merkel announced at the end of October she would not be standing again. Seeing as they were said to be reasonably close, with AKK often referred to as Merkel’s Crown Princess, the lack of communication between the two raised eyebrows at the time, and Merkel has done nothing to show her support of AKK during the campaign. But as both women will have been well aware, an endorsement from Merkel – already associated with a past era from which the party is desperate to move on – may well have done more to hinder than to help her chances.
Nicknamed “two-jets Merz” by some of the German media, the 63-year-old businessman Friedrich Merz nearly fell at the first hurdle of this campaign after it emerged he has two private planes which he uses to fly between his home town of Brilon in the western state of North Rhine Westphalia and Berlin. He also caused a media row after declaring himself to be a member of the middle classes despite admitting to earnings of around €1m a year. The economics lawyer was a senior member of the party before leaving for a job in banking over a decade ago after being pushed aside by Merkel as parliamentary leader of CDU in 2002.
Many observers described his departure as “sulky” and have viewed his attempts to take over the party as little more than an act of revenge. Unlike the other two candidates who took a week to announce their decisions to stand, Merz threw his hat into the ring just 29 minutes after Merkel had announced she would not stand again. He repeatedly dismissed the suggestion he was only acting out of revenge using a favourite phrase “tempi passati” (past times) and has been quick to dampen fears that the two old rivals, he and Merkel, will not be able to work smoothly alongside each other as party leader and chancellor, and that he might even try to trigger early elections in order to oust her from office.
At the series of rallies staged across the country ahead of the vote, Merz consistently received the warmest support. Whilst many within the party resent his self-promotion as a modernising knight in shining armour, his supporters pushed the image of someone who could renew the party’s flagging fortunes and in one survey of company bosses, 70 out of 114 said they were in favour of him.
He is adamant that he can slash support for the rightwing populist AfD – by 50% at the next federal election, scheduled for 2021, referring to them as “openly national socialist”.
Merz has been insistent that his years of experience in the world of global business – he is on the board of investment bank Black Rock and of HSBC among others – serve him well to make Germany fit for the future. He has angrily denied any involvement in financial wrongdoing for which both of the organisations are currently being investigated.
A Catholic and a clarinet player who is married to a local court director with whom he has three children and three grandchildren, Merz pushed his image as a family man throughout the campaign. He was constantly flanked by a team of aides and PR advisers, in contrast to his two far more accessible opponents.