Ger­many looks be­yond Merkel as party elects suc­ces­sor

Times of Oman - - WORLD -

BERLIN: A knife-edge vote Fri­day will de­ter­mine An­gela Merkel’s suc­ces­sor as head of her party af­ter 18 years at the helm, with the Ger­man chan­cel­lor’s own po­lit­i­cal fate and legacy on the line.

Merkel, the Euro­pean Union’s most pow­er­ful leader, stunned ob­servers in Oc­to­ber with the an­nounce­ment fol­low­ing a state elec­tion set­back that she would not stand again as chair­woman of her cen­tre-right Chris­tian Democrats (CDU).

Af­ter years of tur­moil within the party and the elec­torate over her dis­puted de­ci­sion to keep the bor­der open to more than one mil­lion asy­lum seek­ers, Merkel has said she will leave pol­i­tics when her term ends in 2021.

Whether she can hold on to power un­til then will de­pend in large part on who the CDU elects to re­place her at a party con­fer­ence in Ham­burg, with a Merkel loy­al­ist and a long­time neme­sis run­ning neck-and-neck.

“Sooner or later, who­ever be­comes the leader of Ger­many’s big­gest party will prob­a­bly be­come chan­cel­lor,” po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Eck­hard Jesse of the Univer­sity of Chem­nitz said.

Favoured choice

Widely seen as Merkel’s anointed crown princess is An­negret Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, 56.

Known as AKK for short, she is the CDU’s cen­trist gen­eral sec­re­tary and for­mer pre­mier of tiny Saar­land state.

While polls in­di­cate that she is also the favoured choice among Ger­man vot­ers and the CDU’s rank-and-file, there are in­di­ca­tions she has failed to elec­trify the 1,001 del­e­gates who will cast bal­lots in the race against her charis­matic main ri­val, Friedrich Merz.

Merz, 63, a hard-charg­ing cor­po­rate lawyer, lost a power strug­gle to Merkel in 2002 and in­sid­ers say he has never for­given her.

He is also viewed as em­body­ing the party’s de­sire for change in both style and sub­stance af­ter 13 years with Merkel in the chan­cellery, de­spite her en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity. The wild card in the race is Jens Spahn, a 38-year-old openly gay min­is­ter in Merkel’s cab­i­net who long railed against her refugee pol­icy. An­a­lysts say that a win for ei­ther Merz or Spahn would likely bring a swift end to Merkel’s chan­cel­lor­ship, pos­si­bly trig­ger­ing new elec­tions next year.

How the del­e­gates will vote is any­one’s guess, with most keep­ing their cards close to their vests.

Nearly all hold po­lit­i­cal of­fice or party posts. One-third are women.

Af­ter more than a decade in the pri­vate sec­tor, Merz says his con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials and busi­ness savvy make him best placed to win back dis­af­fected vot­ers.

But he touched a nerve when he said the CDU, in his ab­sence, had ac­cepted the rise of the far-right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) party dur­ing the refugee cri­sis “shrug­ging its shoul­ders”. “I get icy chills down my spine when I see peo­ple run­ning around in this coun­try do­ing the Hitler salute,” he told one re­gional con­fer­ence.

Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, who has crit­i­cised some as­pects of Merkel’s bor­der pol­icy, shot back that Merz’s ac­cu­sa­tion was a “slap in the face” for the party’s foot sol­diers.

“Pre­tend­ing you could just say or de­cide some­thing and then the fight against the AfD would be won is naive,” she told the weekly Frank­furter All­ge­meine Son­ntagszeitung. The CDU re­mains Ger­many’s big­gest party.

But the 33 per cent it scored in the Septem­ber 2017 gen­eral elec­tion has sunk to around 28 per cent in opin­ion polls as the party suf­fered losses in a string of re­gional votes. While still seen as Europe’s go-to leader on crises from Brexit to Ukraine, Merkel has watched her stand­ing di­min­ish at the top of a love­less “grand coali­tion” with the So­cial Democrats (SPD).

In­ter­nal di­vi­sions

They are far­ing even worse in the polls, as in­ter­nal di­vi­sions over its for­mer chan­cel­lor Ger­hard Schroeder’s sweep­ing labour mar­ket re­forms con­tinue to fes­ter.

CDU stal­warts ex­pect a Merkel nos­tal­gia-fest in Ham­burg as the faith­ful bid a grad­ual good­bye to the woman who won them four na­tional elec­tions.

But newsweekly Der Spiegel noted that the lead­er­ship strug­gle needed to pro­duce some sort of con­sen­sus on Merkel’s legacy if the party wants to avoid the fate of the SPD. “With­out a crit­i­cal reck­on­ing with her era, the CDU will be stuck in an in­ter­minable ther­apy ses­sion,” it said. “The CDU has to al­low it, even if it seems to many like ma­t­ri­cide.”

- Reuters file photo

STAND­ING DIMINISHED: Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel stunned ob­servers in Oc­to­ber with the an­nounce­ment she would not stand again as chair­woman of her cen­tre-right Chris­tian Democrats (CDU).

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