Germany’s CDU party to choose Angela Merkel’s successor

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party celebrated her 18 years as its leader with a lengthy standing ovation on Friday as it prepared to elect a successor who could help shape Germany’s political direction for the next generation.

A close ally of Merkel’s and a former rival are considered favourites for the job to lead the centre-right Christian Democratic Union.

Merkel announced in October she would give up the reins in her party, though she has said she plans to remain chancellor until the end of the current term in 2021. However, it’s possible elections could be called before then.

Three high-profile contenders have spent the last month touring Germany to drum up support. Major German parties have tended to determine their leaders without a contest, and this is the first open competition for the CDU leadership since 1971.

Merkel mum on successor

The outcome is hard to predict, and the race between the two leading candidates is expected to be close. Whoever wins will be favourite to run for chancellor in the next election, though that isn’t automatic.

Favoured to win are:

  • CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Merkel ally who is widely considered the chancellor’s preferred successor and is closest to her centrist stance.
  • Friedrich Merz, a former leader of the party’s parliamentary group who stands for a more conservative approach and is seeking a comeback after a decade away from front-line politics.

Two of the candidates vying to succeed Merkel as party leader, Jens Spahn, left, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, appear at the CDU congress Friday. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Both have prominent backers, though many CDU grandees — including the chancellor — have held off publicly endorsing a candidate.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, another Merkel critic, is considered the outsider. At 38, he would stand for a change of generation. Kramp-Karrenbauer is 56 and Merz 63, only a year younger than the chancellor.

The choice will be made by 1,001 delegates at a party congress in Hamburg, many of them professional or part-time politicians at federal, regional or local level.

Merkel has been CDU leader since 2000 and chancellor since 2005. She moved her party relentlessly to the centre, dropping military conscription, accelerating Germany’s exit from nuclear energy, introducing benefits encouraging fathers to look after their young children and allowing the introduction of gay marriage.

Most controversially, she allowed large numbers of asylum-seekers into Germany in 2015.

Merkel listed some of those moments and many more in a half-hour farewell speech as leader, telling delegates that “our CDU today is different from the year 2000, and that is a good thing.” She also celebrated Germany’s balancing of its budget in recent years and its response to the eurozone debt crisis.

Waning CDU support

For years, Merkel’s popularity lifted the CDU and its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union. In the 2013 election, they won 41.5 per cent of the vote and only just fell short of an outright parliamentary majority.

At present, the centre-right bloc is polling under 30 per cent. Merkel’s fourth-term governing coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats has lurched through a series of crises since taking office in March, and the CDU has lost supporters both to the liberal Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany.

Merkel, however, recalled that the CDU was in crisis when she took over in 2000, mired in a party financing scandal surrounding former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

“We kept a cool head,” she said. “We showed everyone.”

Merkel appealed to the party to show unity, noting that arguments in recent years over migration have showed “where endless arguments lead.”

“I wasn’t born as chancellor or as party leader,” she said. “I have always wanted to do my government and party jobs with dignity, and one day to leave them with dignity.”

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