Germany: Race for Merkel’s Succession

Germany: Race for Merkel’s Succession

The dominance of the German people’s parties has waned considerably in recent years. Growing fragmentation in the political landscape and within parties has increased the risk of political instability. 

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, announced she would step down as the head of the Christian Democrats (CDU), thereby opening a new race for the succession of Chancellor Merkel and throwing German politics into a period of high uncertainty and instability. Her decision came after a political earthquake in the eastern state of Thuringia, where the CDU, together with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), installed a little-known politician of the Free Democrats (FDP) as prime minister. This ‘unforgivable breaking of the dams’, as it was widely described in Berlin afterwards, revealed fundamental differences among CDU factions that Kramp-Karrenbauer was not able to bring together since taking over as party leader in December 2018. 

The demise of the people’s party 

Following AKK’s announcement, the already existing uncertainty about the strategic direction and leadership within the Christian Democrats rose to a point where the last remaining Volkspartei, or ‘big-tent’ people’s party, plunged into a full-blown crisis which further destabilised the increasingly fragmented political landscape.

In post-war Germany, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats (SPD) traditionally received the vast majority of votes in general elections, hence earning the title Volksparteien. However, in recent decades, this has changed significantly. In the 1998 general election, both parties still reached a combined share of 76% of votes, while polling from February 2020 indicates that CDU/CSU and SPD combine for only 42% nationwide. 

Voter frustration has been particularly high with the SPD, which dropped to as low as 12% in polls nationally. After Kramp-Karrenbauers announcement, the CDU runs the risk of suffering a similar fate, considering it faces the same questions about its strategic direction and leadership that are resulting in internal clashes between different party factions. Central to the current crisis is a 2018 party resolution which rules out any cooperation with the rising far-right AfD and hard-left Die Linke party on both the state and national level. The upheaval in Thuringia revealed that parts of the CDU are increasingly open to talks in both directions, especially in East Germany where the AfD and Die Linke are particularly strong.

Setting the course for the post-Merkel era

When Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was elected as the new head of the CDU, she was seen as a continuity candidate and heir apparent to Angela Merkel. However, Merkel’s attempt to split the chancellorship and party leadership ended up weakening AKK’s position who struggled to impose her authority on the party. Poor election results and consistently low popularity raised questions about her suitability for the chancellery. Her announcement to step down after the Thuringia crisis will therefore also likely mean that the CDU will break with the Merkel era, even with her still being in office. 

Kramp-Karrenbauer will remain party leader while her successor and next chancellor candidate will be selected in an orderly process. Likely contenders include former CDU parliamentary leader Friedrich Merz, who lost against Kramp-Karrenbauer in a run-off for the party leadership in 2018. Yet, Merz, who is socially conservative and economically liberal, enjoys a high level of popularity within the CDU and is considered a competent leader. 

Thirty-nine-year-old Health Minister Jens Spahn also challenged Kramp-Karrenbauer at the 2018 party congress and is expected to contend again as a conservative candidate looking to break with the Merkel era. The assumed front-runner is Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. With a moderate profile and proven leadership qualities, Laschet is best equipped to bring together the various factions within the CDU.

Thus far, the only candidate confirming his bid for the CDU leadership is Norbert Röttgen, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Though with lower name recognition compared to the other likely candidates, Röttgen is the only one with strong foreign policy experience. Finally, while the new leader of the CDU is expected to become chancellor candidate, the Christian Democrat’s Bavarian sister party CSU could also push its popular candidate, the Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Soeder. 

Uncertainty and instability ahead

The CDU is seeking to avoid a prolonged period of introspection and is aiming for a decision before the summer break. Against this backdrop, two questions quickly arise. Will Chancellor Merkel remain in office until the end of her term in autumn of 2021? And will the already fractured grand coalition remain intact in the process? 

Whoever succeeds Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as CDU leader will not want to repeat the experiment of splitting the roles of party leader and chancellor. Given that several of the likely candidates had significant run-ins with Merkel in the past, it is unlikely they will accept a lengthy period of cohabitation, if at all. 

That is putting pressure on Angela Merkel to step down as chancellor. Yet, an immediate transition of power would be untimely as Germany will hold the rotating presidency of the EU in the second half of 2020. In addition, Merkel aims to serve her full term, and the German constitution does not provide an easy way to get rid of a chancellor. 

Meanwhile, the SPD indicated that it will not accept anyone as chancellor expect Merkel during the current term. That means the ensuing CDU leadership race has also significantly increased the risk of snap elections. However, with both the CDU and SPD in crisis, neither would benefit from early elections as the AfD and especially the Greens remain on an upward trend nationally. The state election in Hamburg on February 23rd will serve as an early indicator of voter sentiment after the events since the Thuringia upheaval.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Maxim Hofer

Maxim Hofer is a country analyst for a global market intelligence publisher. He holds a Diploma in Business Economics from the University of Mainz, Germany, and a Master of Science in International Business and Politics from Queen Mary University of London. Currently, he is pursuing the Certificate of Higher Education in Political Economy from Oxford University.