A senior German conservative politician, who was once seen as the brains behind Angela Merkel’s inner circle but was later sacked by the chancellor, has put himself forward as a surprise candidate to take over as leader of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), further complicating the party’s chaotic succession planning.
Norbert Röttgen announced his candidacy for the soon-to-be vacant seat at the top of the CDU in a press conference on Tuesday, saying he had decided to run because he believed the party should strategically position itself as the “party of the centre”.
Last week, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s protege, threw the party into turmoil by saying she would not stand as chancellor in the next federal election, due by October 2021, and announcing she would give up the CDU chair.
Röttgen’s unexpected move makes him the first official contender for the post of party leader. All the potential contenders so far are men hailing from the powerful state of North-Rhine Westphalia.
A member of the Bundestag since 1994, Röttgen was one of a number of broadly liberal politicians with an interest in environmental policy who formed Merkel’s inner circle and helped write her 2005 election manifesto. In 2009, in Merkel’s second term in power, he was made Germany’s environment minister.
But Röttgen fell out of favour with the chancellor in 2012, after choosing to run for the premiership in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and achieving one of the worst results in his party’s history. He was sacked from cabinet days after the result.
In recent years, Röttgen has managed to rebuild a national and international profile in his role as head of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, proving his reputation as an eloquent debater with stances on Brexit, the war in Syria and the trade stand-off with Donald Trump that were often more forthright than those of the chancellor.
His power within the party is seen as limited by his missteps in the past, however, and the fact that Röttgen’s liberal profile is so similar to that of another potential continuity candidate, the current North-Rhine Westphalian premier, Armin Laschet, has raised eyebrows.
In the past, Röttgen has been seen as someone who could work with the Greens, currently the second-biggest party in the polls after the conservative bloc.
In a letter quoted by the regional newspaper Rheinische Post to Kramp-Karrenbauer, Röttgen said the situation was “so serious that it was about the future of the CDU and what that meant for the stability of Germany”.
The other potential CDU leadership contenders are Friedrich Merz, an economic liberal and former arch-rival to Merkel, and the rightwing health minister, Jens Spahn.
The CDU leader is likely to be the chancellor candidate for the conservative bloc, but the Christian Social Union – the Bavarian sister party to the CDU – could put forward a candidate.