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