The race to re­place Merkel


It has been de­scribed as the cliffhanger of the year, a bat­tle that has left Ger­many – and Europe – on the edge of its seat. At stake, say some, is noth­ing less than the fu­ture di­rec­tion of coun­try and con­ti­nent.

On 8 De­cem­ber, Ger­many’s con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU) will vote on its suc­ces­sor to An­gela Merkel, who is step­ping down af­ter 18 years in charge of the party. Merkel has said she in­tends to re­main Ger­man chan­cel­lor un­til the next fed­eral elec­tions, due in 2021.

The con­tenders are An­negret Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, a Merkel ally and CDU gen­eral sec­re­tary; Friedrich Merz, who left pol­i­tics for the world of fi­nance more than a decade ago; and Jens Spahn, the health min­is­ter in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and the youngest in the race, who was once seen as the party’s poster boy.

Last Wed­nes­day, at a cru­cial round of hus­tings with the party base in Düs­sel­dorf, in the western state of North Rhine-West­phalia (NRW), the trio laid out their vi­sions for Ger­many. The tabloid news­pa­per Bild likened pro­ceed­ings to a “wellor­gan­ised group ther­apy ses­sion” af­ter months of dis­agree­ment, both within the party and with its tra­di­tional ally the Bavar­ian CSU, over Merkel’s im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies.

Among the 4,000 in the au­di­ence, Chris­tel Hellers­berg, 72, a re­tired teacher, said she was look­ing for clar­ity as to who could best lead the party she had voted for all her life. “Ger­mans in gen­eral want a change but they are also very cau­tious about what they wish for. I need to know that the per­son cho­sen will en­sure the con­tin­ued sta­bil­ity of Ger­many, and will be com­mit­ted to the Euro­pean project,” she said. “I’m here to get a feel for who the best per­son for the job might be.”

Merz went first. The 63-yearold lawyer, a na­tive of the re­gion and there­fore on home turf, drew cheers as he ap­pealed for a shift away from so­cial demo­cratic-style poli­cies. “We don’t have to adopt every view­point held by the So­cial Democrats,” he said in a clear dig at Merkel, who stands ac­cused of mov­ing the party too far to the left dur­ing its years as the main party in a grand coali­tion.

Merz pre­sented him­self as the out­sider who, due to his ex­pe­ri­ence in the bank­ing in­dus­try, would be able to res­cue both the party and Ger­many by shak­ing them out of a state of com­pla­cency af­ter nine years of eco­nomic growth, which he said was un­likely to con­tinue.

Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, pop­u­larly known as AKK and whose loy­alty to Merkel is seen both as one of her strengths and a po­ten­tial threat to her can­di­dacy, stressed her goal to recre­ate the CDU as the “true po­lit­i­cal Heimat [home] of many” by win­ning back the mil­lions of vot­ers the party had lost to the Greens on the left and the pop­ulist Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land party on the right. The CDU re­ceived just 32.9% of the vote in last year’s fed­eral elec­tion, its sec­ond-worst re­sult since 1949.

“The stronger we are, the fewer com­pro­mises we have to make with a coali­tion party,” she said, stress­ing the messy fall­out over the re­newed coali­tion be­tween the CDU and the so­cial demo­cratic SPD formed in March. Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, a staunch Catholic, ref­er­enced the more than 1 mil­lion, mainly Mus­lim, im­mi­grants who have en­tered Ger­many since 2015 and the Turk­ish di­as­pora, urg­ing more courage in party de­bates about Is­lam in Ger­man so­ci­ety.

Spahn’s em­pha­sis was on re­duc­ing taxes and non-wage labour costs, as well as de­vel­op­ing a healthy pa­tri­o­tism and urg­ing Ger­many to “think big­ger” in terms of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy.

Spahn, also an NRW na­tive, ap­peared as re­luc­tant as his ri­vals to di­rectly at­tack Merkel, in recog­ni­tion of the im­mense amount of re­spect that re­mains for her in the CDU. But he stressed that the open bor­ders pol­icy she had ad­vo­cated “only works if we pro­tect our outer border”, ar­gu­ing for con­trols on Europe’s fron­tiers.

Ger­mans in gen­eral want a change, but they are also very cau­tious what they wish for


Can­di­dates: Friedrich Merz, left; An­negret Kram­pKar­ren­bauer and Jens Spahn

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