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The race to succeed Merkel

Published in Newsroom Pro (Wellington), 6 November 2018

Last month, I wrote why Angela Merkel’s days as Germany’s head of government were numbered. This month, it is time to speculate who might succeed her as leader of her CDU party – and ultimately as chancellor.

Having recently lost two state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, and with her party faring abysmally in federal polls, Merkel announced she would not seek re-election as leader of the CDU in early December.

Merkel has not quite resigned, yet she might be out of office sooner than she intends. If you are not following German politics closely (who could blame you?) this requires an explanation.

New Zealand shares its MMP electoral system with Germany, yet parties organise their affairs quite differently in the two countries.

In New Zealand, we have a separation between a party’s leader (say Jacinda Ardern) and its chair (say Nigel Haworth). The leader is usually chosen by MPs, and the leader of the main party forming the government is the Prime Minister.

So far, so straightforward. Not so in Germany.

In Germany, a large convention of delegates (not just MPs) elects the party leader. The leader is responsible both for the organisation and the political direction of the party (there are no chairs). There is no automatism that the leader of the largest party in government would also be the chancellor. Finally, a party’s leader does not even have to be a member of Parliament.

What sounds complicated forms the backdrop to Angela Merkel’s announcement.

By stepping back as leader of her party, Merkel has started an open race to succeed her. Any party member who secures a majority of the 1,001 party convention delegates will be the new CDU leader. Merkel, meanwhile, declared she wants to stay on as chancellor for the remainder of the term before retiring from politics.

It only took a few hours for three candidates to self-nominate for the CDU leadership:

  • Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (56), secretary general of the CDU and a former state premier of Saarland;
  • Jens Spahn MP (38), the federal health minister; and
  • Friedrich Merz (62), a lawyer and company director, who once headed the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag but retired from politics in 2009.

This three-way race for Merkel’s succession is the most unpredictable development in German politics in a generation. None of the candidates enters it as the ‘heir apparent’, all three embody distinct approaches to politics, and the outcome of the race determines Merkel’s future and the fate of the German government. So, let’s assess the candidates and the potential outcomes.

Had Merkel stayed on for another couple of years, Kramp-Karrenbauer would have been the natural choice to take over from her. Installed by Merkel as the party’s campaign and organisation manager earlier this year, AKK (as she is known) was groomed to be Merkel’s successor. Why else would AKK give up the plush job as state premier of Saarland?

Despite her executive experience (she had been a state minister since 2000), AKK is an unknown quantity in national politics. She needs more time to increase her profile. With Merkel’s announcement, that is time AKK has no more. It also does not help that she is perceived as a Merkel clone. Given the parlous state of the CDU, that is the opposite of what the party wants.

The second candidate is Jens Spahn. He is young, as openly gay as he is critical of Merkel, and the leading voice of cultural conservatives in the CDU. The party’s growing frustration with Merkel’s politics created a fertile ground for Spahn’s career ambitions. Still, Spahn is probably an upstart who overdid it. Reportedly, when he announced his candidacy to the party board, there was a deafening silence in the room.

The problems of AKK and Spahn leave Friedrich Merz as the surprise frontrunner, at least for the time being.

As head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group from 2000 to 2002, Merz was a powerful figure in Germany’s centre-right. A brilliant orator, he united economically liberal and socially conservative positions and was popular among CDU voters and his parliamentary colleagues.

However, that did not spare Merz from being demoted by Merkel after the 2002 federal election. She decided that as party leader, she should also lead the parliamentary party. It was a logical step, but one that sidelined Merz. Frustrated, he left Parliament in 2009 and built a portfolio of corporate directorships.

For anyone in the centre-right unhappy with Merkel’s politics, Merz became an object of projection: What if he had stayed on? What would he have done differently? Where would the party be with him as leader?

Well, the CDU now has a chance to find out because Merz is standing for leader. As magazine Der Spiegel revealed on Friday, a group of Merkel discontents led by Wolfgang Schäuble have pulled Merz out of his long political sabbatical and are trying to install him as leader.

Of the three options for the party, only an AKK victory would allow Merkel to stay on as chancellor, at least for a while. But given her histories with both Spahn and Merz, she could not do that without losing face if one of them should win.

In this way, the election of the party leader could trigger a domino effect. Once Merkel resigns as chancellor, the coalition with the Social Democrats would be over. The SPD party struggled enough to support Merkel; it is unthinkable they would vote for a more right-wing candidate like Merz or Spahn.

Germany would then go to the polls in which the CDU under a fresh, new leader would become the strongest party, likely followed by the Greens. The once proud SPD, exhausted and spent as a political force, might be relegated to a minor party. At the end, there would be a coalition government between the CDU/CSU, the Greens and potentially the liberal FDP.

The next weeks could well determine the new chancellor. The CDU will elect its new leader at the party’s convention in Hamburg on 7 and 8 December.

The way it is going, Germany’s chancellor in early 2019 would no longer be called Merkel but Merz. That may sound similar. They even belong to the same party. But it would be a markedly different government.

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