Pressure is growing on Angela Merkel’s troubled Christian Democratic Union to speed up the process of finding a new leader, amid warnings from senior party members that paralysis within the party could spread across the EU when Germany assumes the rotating presidency of the council of the European Union in the second half of the year.
The German centre-right has been in turmoil since Merkel’s designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, resigned after CDU politicians in the eastern state of Thuringia defied instructions not to side with the far right in a state election.
While Germany has been abuzz with speculation about who could take the country’s largest and strongest party into the post-Merkel era, the three top contenders have been reluctant to enter the fray.
German media reported on Friday that Kramp-Karrenbauer could up the pace by announcing a timetable, or even her own favourite candidate, on 24 February. The CDU’s press office would neither confirm nor deny the reports.
Senior German conservatives warn that leaving the question of the leadership unresolved until after the summer break would risk spreading the CDU’s paralysis across the affairs of the EU. In July, Germany officially takes over the task of chairing meetings of the council of the EU and determining its agendas on issues ranging from Brexit to the European Green Deal.
“A lot of people are looking at Germany from the outside,” said Gunther Krichbaum, the CDU chair of the committee on EU affairs in the Bundestag. “Whether you want it or not, there’s an expectation that Germany and France take up a joint leadership role. We always used to be an anchor of stability in the EU because our big-tent parties were so strong.”
Merkel’s plan to gradually phase out her 20-year career at the forefront of German politics has been in tatters since her heir apparent, “AKK”, announced her resignation on 10 February.
The 57-year-old “mini-Merkel” from the Saarland region had struggled in the seat at the top of Germany’s largest and most powerful party since being elected in December 2018. Many moderates in the party felt she was suppressing her liberal instincts to appease hardliners calling on the CDU to tack right.
In the end, AKK’s undoing came after a bombshell in Thuringia, where her party ignored the CDU’s “firewall” against the far right by ousting the state’s leftwing premier with the help of votes from the aggressively nationalistic Alternative für Deutschland. The crisis remains unresolved, with the CDU’s leader in the eastern state also announcing on Friday plans to step down.
Part of the problem, Kramp-Karrenbauer appeared to hint on Monday, was that any CDU leader would struggle to step out of Merkel’s shadow while she remained in the chancellory and enjoyed high popularity ratings across the country.
According to some of Merkel’s critics, the new leader of the party should therefore also be automatically anointed as the CDU’s chancellor candidate for federal elections scheduled for 2021 or, more drastically still, lead the party into snap elections after Merkel’s resignation.
Merkel loyalists in the party caution against a rush for change. “During her tenure Angela Merkel has overseen a process of continuous growth and modernisation with remarkable patience and endurance,” said Kai Whittaker, a delegate from Germany’s south-west.
“The risk with the coming transition process is that the CDU could be dragged into hectic debate full of symbolic gestures and token politics, and lose the calmness that has characterised our party the last 15 years,” Whittaker told the Guardian.
For now, the race for the CDU leadership seems to be losing rather than gaining momentum. Two potential candidates, the youthful health minister, Jens Spahn, and the Merkel loyalist Armin Laschet, have so far declined to throw their hats into the ring. Another rumoured candidate, the Bavarian state premier, Markus Söder, has insisted he is happy to remain in his role in Munich.
Even the veteran rightwinger Friedrich Merz, the candidate of choice not only for CDU members dreaming of a return to a more openly conservative pre-Merkel era but for the influential mass tabloid Bild, has only gone so far as not ruling out that he would run.
Ousted by Merkel as the CDU’s parliamentary group leader in 2002, Merz initially wrong-footed supporters and critics alike at a business event in Berlin on Thursday evening, when he described the current chancellor as a “role model” and praised her determined but modest style.
Yet Merz, whom polls see as a favourite for the leadership, left his audience in no uncertain terms that he embodied a different, many would say more old-fashioned, political style to Germany’s first female chancellor.
Speaking after days of Storm Sabine causing havoc across Germany, he joked: “It’s a complete coincidence, by the way, that all ‘lows’ currently have female names.”