Tomorrow, 7 December, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU) will elect a new chairperson as she steps down from this role after over 18 years leading her party. It does not automatically follow in German politics that a party’s leader will be its chancellor candidate; but it is highly likely that her successor at the helm of the CDU will be its choice for chancellor come the 2021 general election too. Furthermore, as I wrote in my 27 October article, we may see a change in the Chancellery in Berlin even before then — a view which has become increasingly popular in the interim, at least among the German commentariat. The actual vote for the new party leader is restricted to an electoral college of 1001 delegates, all leading CDU members, assembled at the party’s 7-8 December annual congress being held in Hamburg. They have to choose among three candidates, as follows:
- Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (aka ‘AKK’), currently CDU Secretary-General and widely believed to be Mrs Merkel’s preferred successor, as well as the ‘continuity candidate’;
- Friedrich Merz, a conservative to the right of the party who was effectively eased out of politics by Mrs Merkel over a decade ago and who currently works for Blackrock;
- Jens Spahn, currently Health Minister, who is one of the rising young stars of the party and who has won plaudits from its right wing for his open opposition to Mrs Merkel on refugees/migration.
In practice, however, all the signs (including opinion polls) are that, having been seen early on as the frontrunner, Mr Spahn is effectively out of a contest which appears to have evolved into a two-horse race between Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer (ahead in most polls) and Mr Merz. However, the latter is a favourite son of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous land (ie state) which accounts for around one-third of the electoral college; and he enjoys an endorsement from the revered (by many) former finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. So he certainly cannot be discounted.
The main contrast between the two is clear. Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is a proponent of the ‘big tent’ centrist approach favoured by her mentor, Mrs Merkel, arguing that the bigger the support for the party the less it will have to compromise in the (seemingly inevitable) event of future governments being coalitions of at least two parties. Mr Merz, on the other hand, argues in favour of reversing the party’s drift into social democracy under Mrs Merkel and restoring its distinct identity — not least with an eye to winning back former CDU (and, even more so, CSU, its Bavarian sister party) supporters who have drifted into the arms of the nationalist/populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Reverting to the question of whether Mrs Merkel can survive in the Chancellery until 2021, as she intends, in common with the consensus I doubt very much that Mr Merz would allow this to happen if he wins tomorrow’s election. Furthermore, I would not bet on a triumphant Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer electing to wait patiently through the remainder of this parliamentary term. In other words, I stand by what I wrote on 27 October as follows.
“First, [Mrs Merkel’s intention to stay on] suggests that she fails to understand that the unpopularity of her government is as much a reflection of Germans' desire for a change in the Chancellery as anything else.
Second, even if her attempt to remain Chancellor but not party leader was not a reversal of her previous commitment it is by no means clear that she can carry it off. As the Berlin correspondent for the BBC, Jenny Hill, notes:
'Much depends on her successor as party leader. If it is a loyalist — like Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — Germany might see a smooth transition to a new chancellor, possibly allowing Mrs Merkel to see out her term. But the vultures are circling. Already an old rival, Friedrich Merz, has announced his candidacy. If one of Mrs Merkel's adversaries prevails as party leader, her chancellorship becomes uncomfortable and possibly untenable.'
Maybe she will get away with it. But of all today's leading politicians, Mrs Merkel who is widely 'credited' with the political assassination of her predecessor (as CDU leader) and patron, Helmut Kohl, should know better than to take such a risk.”
The idea put forward by Mr Schäuble back in October that she won’t be a ‘lame duck’ is, in my view, risible whoever is leading the party. I would therefore add to my 27 October reasoning that she should step down early not only for the wellbeing of Germany but for the EU as a whole facing some very tough challenges in the coming weeks (even putting the — entirely predictable — mess which is currently Brexit to one side). These include the confrontation over Italy’s budget which (despite recent signs of compromise from Rome) looks more like a fiscal version of Russian roulette every day; the European Parliament elections on 23-26 May which are likely to see a wave of support for populists across much of the EU; and the urgent need for France’s President Emmanuel Macron to undo the self-inflicted damage to his credibility at home.
Clear and strong leadership in Germany is nothing like sufficient of itself to overcome these challenges; but the absence of it would only make dealing effectively with them tougher still. This, to my mind, matters much more than which of the candidates prevails tomorrow.