The race to succeed Angela Merkel as German leader was thrown wide open on Monday as Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman long seen as her anointed heir, said she would not run for chancellor in next year’s election.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is also to stand down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, the party she has led since December 2018, in a move that will usher in a new era of uncertainty in German politics.
AKK, as she is widely known, was seen as Ms Merkel’s favoured successor and had long been viewed as a shoo-in for chancellor. But a series of gaffes gradually eroded her authority and sent her poll ratings into a tailspin.
“Her mistakes just kept piling up,” said Olav Gutting, a CDU MP who is in the party’s governing council. “People like her a lot as a person, but the grass roots had growing doubts about her fitness for the highest office.”
The contest to replace Ms Merkel, who will step down after her fourth and final term expires next year, is now expected to be a three-way contest between Armin Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state; Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister; and Friedrich Merz, a former leader of the CDU parliamentary group and longtime rival of Ms Merkel.
A victory by Mr Merz or Mr Spahn, both conservatives, would mark a watershed for the CDU, which has moved to the centre ground of German politics under Ms Merkel. Many in the party would like to see it shift to the right again once the long-serving chancellor exits the political stage.
Mr Merz announced last week that he was giving up his job as chairman of BlackRock, the investment manager, in Germany so he could devote more of his time to the CDU — a move many saw as confirmation of his leadership ambitions.
The contenders to lead the CDU:
Friedrich Merz was long seen as one of the leading conservative politicians of his generation. But he lost out to Angela Merkel in a power struggle and, a few years later, quit politics for a career in business, rising to become chairman of BlackRock in Germany — a job that made him a millionaire. In 2018 he staged a comeback, entering the race to succeed Ms Merkel as leader of the CDU and losing narrowly to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
In recent weeks his frantic schedule of public appearances has underscored his continuing interest in Germany’s top job. Mr Merz, who has strong views on immigration and national identity, has promised to pull the CDU in a more conservative direction and win back voters who defected to the nationalist Alternative for Germany.
Jens Spahn, 39, is one of Germany’s most active politicians. As health minister he has presented 18 draft laws in 18 months, dealing with everything from cutting patient waiting times to boosting staffing levels at care homes. Even Angela Merkel, long mistrustful of Mr Spahn, has become a fan: she said recently that he was successfully “taking on a lot of hot potatoes” and “getting a huge amount done”.
Young, ambitious and openly gay, Mr Spahn made a name for himself in 2015 as the most outspoken critic of Ms Merkel’s liberal immigration policies. The standard-bearer of the young conservatives in the Christian Democratic Union, he also ran for the leadership of the party in 2018. With Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer now throwing in the towel, Mr Spahn might attempt a second play for the top job in German politics.
The prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, Armin Laschet has long been considered a possible successor to Angela Merkel — and is widely seen as her ideological heir. The 58-year-old has some advantages: he heads the CDU’s largest regional association, and his coalition of CDU and liberal Free Democrats has won praise for its pro-business policies.
He also played a key role in Germany’s sensitive negotiations to phase out coal-fired power, which will have far-reaching consequences for his heavily industrialised state. However, party critics doubt whether the Merkel loyalist has the stature to be chancellor. A former journalist, Mr Laschet joined the CDU as an 18-year-old, was elected to the Bundestag in 1994 and later won a seat in the European Parliament.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement capped a tumultuous week in German politics that began when CDU politicians in the east German state of Thuringia sided with the nationalist Alternative for Germany to elect a little-known local politician as the state’s leader. It was the first time in Germany’s postwar history that a prime minister had been helped into office with the votes of the far-right.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer had urged the Thuringian CDU not to vote for the candidate, Thomas Kemmerich of the liberal Free Democrats, but it went against her wishes. Their insubordination underscored her waning authority in the party: Tilman Kuban, leader of the CDU’s youth wing, said the party suffered from “a lack of leadership”.
Ms Merkel then intervened, describing the CDU’s behaviour as “unforgivable” and insisting the election of Mr Kemmerich be cancelled. The remarks — by a chancellor who has rarely spoken publicly about domestic politics since standing down as CDU leader in 2018 — only highlighted Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s weakness.
“The erosion of AKK’s power was unmistakable,” said Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Free University in Berlin. “The conservative circles in the CDU/CSU [Christian Social Union] challenged her, and AKK could not calm them down.” Meanwhile, Ms Merkel’s intervention in the Thuringian affair “made clear how weak AKK’s position was”.
Hans-Georg Maassen, a leading CDU hardliner and former head of German domestic intelligence, welcomed Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement. “The CDU needs a leader who solves problems and is not herself part of the problem,” he said.
A CDU spokesman said that Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer had told the party’s governing executive on Monday morning that she would not seek to run as the CDU’s candidate for chancellor in the next Bundestag election, due to take place next year. She said that as the CDU’s candidate for chancellor should also be the leader of the party, she would also step down as CDU chair.
The spokesman said Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer would organise the process of choosing a candidate by the summer, prepare the party for the future and then give up the leadership. He said that at the meeting Ms Merkel warmly thanked Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer and said she hoped she would remain as defence minister, a post she assumed last July.
According to the CDU spokesman, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer said one reason for her decision to stand down was the “unclear relationship” between parts of the CDU and the AfD, as well as the hard-left Die Linke party.
The issue has turned into a bone of contention in the CDU, with many Christian Democrats in the east urging the party to scrap the cordon sanitaire it has erected around the AfD.
Meanwhile some in the west think the party should be less doctrinaire in its approach to Die Linke. AKK was never able to resolve these internal contradictions, which threaten to open up deep fissures in the party.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer had been prime minister of the tiny western state of Saarland when she was picked by Ms Merkel to become secretary-general of the CDU in February 2018.
In December 2018 she won the election to succeed Ms Merkel as CDU leader, beating Mr Merz and Mr Spahn. But she came under pressure as the party suffered a string of reversals in elections in the east German states of Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia and to the European Parliament.
Last May she was severely criticised for her ham-fisted response to a video by Rezo, a YouTube star, which lambasted the CDU for its inaction on climate change. When she called for tighter rules on online political campaigning, critics accused her of trying to censor the internet.
A few months before, she earned brickbats for a performance at a carnival event in southern Germany in which she made a joke about intersex toilets. The CDU’s LGBT caucus demanded an apology.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer was made defence minister in July 2019, part of an attempt to reset her campaign for chancellor. She won praise for speeches in which she called for Germany to play a more active role in the world. But the slide in her ratings continued.
“She clearly realised that there was no easy way out of the hole she had fallen into,” said one CDU MP. “She had made so many mistakes, and she just could not turn things around.”