World / Politics

Battle to succeed Angela Merkel kicks off in Germany's CDU

Bloomberg, AFP-JIJI

The search to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor has started to get rolling as the first two contenders register their interest amid growing pressure to accelerate the process to choose a candidate for the next election.

Friedrich Merz will run to be leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and is open to a nonbinding membership vote, where he is optimistic about getting a majority to support him, according to a person familiar with his plans. The former CDU heavyweight, a longtime Merkel antagonist, launched a failed bid for the post in 2018.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, 39, said he is prepared to “take on responsibility” and signaled that potential Merkel successors were holding talks to discuss how to proceed.

“We’ll be discussing in the coming days what form that takes,” Spahn said in Berlin, according to Deutsche Presse Agentur. “We all need to make sure to give it a few days so that we can discuss things in quiet.”

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU leader who shook up the establishment this week by dropping her ambitions for the chancellorship and announcing she would quit as party chairwoman, will begin talks with potential candidates next week, a CDU spokesman said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the party’s Bavarian allies demanded a say in choosing the conservative bloc’s next chancellor candidate, throwing a twist into the process and foreshadowing months of potential acrimony over who gets to run for the job of leading Europe’s biggest economy.

At stake is Germany’s future orientation as Merkel’s succession evolves into an ideological battle over where the CDU, which has governed for Germany for most of its post-World War II history, is headed. The political fallout was triggered by an outcry over CDU lawmakers in the eastern state of Thuringia aligning with the far-right Alternative for Germany to install a regional leader last week.

Kramp-Karrenbauer said Monday that she will stay on until a new CDU leader is found, who would also be the chancellery candidate. The new setup would be approved by a party conference in December, but that time frame was quickly assailed by party grandees who said a new leader should be found sooner. Merkel has said she will stand down after the next election, in autumn 2021 at the latest.

For its part, the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, said the decision on a candidate would be made by both parties. CSU leader Markus Soeder, also touted as a potential successor, will likely meet Kramp-Karrenbauer over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference, she said during a NATO meeting in Brussels.

In addition to Spahn, Soeder and Merz, another likely candidate is Armin Laschet, a CDU moderate who leads Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Markus Blume, the CSU general secretary, was the latest official to rule out waiting until December to seal a decision at the CDU’s conference.

A party spokesman left open the possibility of an extraordinary meeting to install a new chair, but said no decision had been made.

The CDU must first decide on a replacement for Kramp-Karrenbauer as party leader and then a joint decision will be made on the best candidate from the conservative bloc to contest the next election, Blume told Deutschlandfunk radio.

“This can of course in the end be the same person, but that doesn’t have to be the case,” he added.

Favored by the CDU’s most conservative members, Merz wants to shift the party to the right to woo back voters lost to the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Merz has never forgiven Merkel for driving him out as head of the party’s group of MPs in the Bundestag in 2002.

He was narrowly beaten in the vote for party leader by Kramp-Karrenbauer in December 2018 and has been waiting in the wings ever since.

He announced this month he was quitting his job on the supervisory board of the German arm of investment firm BlackRock to dedicate himself to politics and to helping the CDU “renew itself.”

In recent months Merz has attacked Merkel and her “failed” leadership.

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