The end of an era
On October 29, Angela Merkel declared that she would not run for the party chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) again, a position she held for the past 18 years. It marks the beginning of her gradual retreat from politics, as Merkel will also not seek another term as chancellor in 2021 or any other political position thereafter. Merkel’s announcement came as a surprise, as she had in the past stressed the importance for party leadership and chancellorship going hand in hand. Holding both offices has served Merkel and previous chancellors well, as they do not have to assert themselves and their political course against a critical party leader.
For that reason, Merkel called her decision to hand over the office party leadership to a successor while remaining chancellor a risk, but one she considered necessary. For one, after the disappointing election results for her in the elections in Bavaria and Hessen, giving up the party leadership demonstrates to the voters that Merkel has understood the criticism of her politics. At the same time, Merkel believes that by remaining chancellor, she ensures that Germany has a stable coalition government.
Whether or not her political gamble plays out depends greatly on the new party chair of the CDU. As the implications of a German ‘lame duck’ Chancellor are possibly grave for a Europe in crisis mood, it is worthwhile thus to look at the most promising candidates.
Within days of the press announcement, a total of 12 hopeful candidates have officially announced that they would seek the position as party chair this coming December. Of those, three are granted a realistic chance.
Friedrich Merz (62) – the surprise
Having turned his back on politics nine years ago, Merz was the first to announce his interest in running for the position of party leader. The announcement received widespread attention and was met with great enthusiasm in many parts of the CDU. It is well known that Merz fell out with Merkel after she replaced him as CDU/CSU parliamentary group leader in 2002. Much of his appeal to circles within the party is thus due to his image as Merkel’s antipode. Merz stands especially for two things. First, Merz is an outspoken proponent of more traditional values. Back in 2000, Merz triggered widespread uproar when he coined the term ‘Leitkultur’ to describe a way of life that migrants to Germany should adhere to. Since then, other CDU politicians have revived the term, most notably the former President of the Bundestag Norbert Lammert, Despite having more conservative views, Merz in the last weeks has emphasized that he is willing to cooperate with Merkel on these issues rather than confront her heads on. He recently claimed that he would not initiate a ‘conservative revolution’ should he secure the party leadership in December. Second, Merz stands for economic libertarianism, as he has made clear in his book ‘Let Us Dare More Capitalism’in 2009. Indeed, 70% of executives of the German economy stated a preference for Merz.
Yet Merz’s closeness to the German economy could also prove to be his greatest weakness. Receiving widespread attention after announcing his interest in running for the party leadership, journalists have started to look into what Merz has been up to since he left politics. Since then, the momentum his candidacy had initiated has slowed. Instead, Merz has receiving negative publicity for calling himself part of the ‘upper middle class’ while also admitting to being a millionaire. Moreover, Merz is on the advisory board of an asset-management company, BlackRock, that earlier this month was subject to a police raid. Both instances have revealed Merz´s vulnerability.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (56) – Merkel’s choice
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is the current CDU’s general secretary. Before Merkel asked her to come to Berlin, Kramp-Karrenbauer headed a CDU-SPD coalition as minister-presidentin the federal state of Saarland. Her successful re-election in the spring of 2017 with staggering 40,7% was the first serious blowto the so-called ‘Schulz-train,’ the euphoria that former EP-President Martin Schulz triggered after being elected SPD president and candidate for chancellor. . Like Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer leans on some social issues more towards the left wing of the CDU. This for instance is reflected in her strong support for a quota for women. Yet, in other points Kramp-Karrenbauer has taken a more conservative stance than Merkel, making her appealing to other parts of the CDU as well. As such, Kramp-Karrenbauer has called for the introduction of amandatory social service year, is critical of marriage for all, and has questioned whether it is sensible to grant dual citizenship for Turkish citizens living in Germany.
Even with these differences, Kramp-Karrenbauer is unofficially Merkel’s preferred choice. With Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s gamble is likely to succeed. For one, the two women have worked closely together over the last few months. Moreover, their relationship is based on deep sense of appreciation. Merkel for instance once described Kramp-Karrenbauer’s decision to give up her position as Saarland’s minister to be the CDU’s general secretary, a position lower in “rank”, in trying times as touching. At this point, it remains to be seen whether Kramp-Karrenbauer’s closeness to Merkel might not harm her in her attempt to get elected as party leaders. After all, some voices in the CDU argue that electing Kramp-Karrenbauer will not constitute a reform or rebirth of the party, but instead will simply be a continuation of the Merkel era. Another obstacle on the way to the party leadership might be that Kramp-Karrenbauer is most popular in the Saarland, a federal state that contributes just 34 of the 1001 delegates to the CDU Bundesparteitag. In contrast, Merz and Spahn both come from NRW, a state that will send 259 delegates to the Bundesparteitag where Merkel’s successor will be elected in December.
Jens Spahn (38) – change of course
At only 38 Spahn is the youngest of the three most promising candidates. He entered national policy at the age of 22 when he was first elected to the Bundestag. His political breakthrough took place under former Minister of Finance and current President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble, who named Spahn Parliamentary Secretary of State for Finance in 2015. In March 2018, he was named Minister of Health in Merkel´s fourth cabinet. His appointment however was not a sign of good will on Merkel’s part. Instead, it was an attempt by Merkel to please the more conservative voices in the CDU and to discipline Spahn, one of her most vocal critics, until now with little success.
Spahn, like Merz appeals to the more conservative and youth circles of the party. Both are brilliant orators and Spahn is hoping to make a decisive impression at the Bundesparteitag. In the past, Spahn has been an outspoken critic of some of Merkel’s more liberal and progressive policies. For instance, in 2015, Spahn called Merkel’s welcoming migration policy a ‘disruption of the state’. For those reasons, it is doubtful whether Merkel and Spahn would be able to work smoothly together as Chancellor and party leader, putting into question the success of Merkel’s gamble. Many are doubtful that if Spahn or Merz areelected, Merkel would last as Chancellor beyond 2019.
What currently speaks against Spahn is his young age that some see as a lack of experience. Moreover, Spahn in the past has made negative headlines for seemingly arrogant remarks. As Minister of Health, he put into question whether receivers of minimum income in Germany should be considered as poor. Most importantly, Merz proves problematic to Spahn’s candidacy. Both candidates try to win votes from the conservative parts of the CDU. Both come from the same Bundesland, North Rhine Westphalia. With Merz receiving much of the attention, Spahn seems to struggle to set himself apart from the older candidate. On a last note, it remains to be seen in how far Spahn’s outspoken homosexuality influences his chances. While, it makes him appealing to the more liberal CDU members, it could cost him votes amongst the conservatives which both he and Merz are trying to win over.