vote fallout

Angela Merkel steps down as CDU party leader

Bundestag
Source: DPA

On Monday morning, at a meeting of the CDU’s executive council Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would not stand again as a candidate to head the Christian Democratic Union.

She later told press that she was stepping down as party leader was the first step towards a leadership transition. She confirmed that she would not stand again as chancellor at the next general election.

Her decision was announced after historically low results in two state elections, in Bavaria in mid-October and on Sunday in Hesse. The CDU lost ten percentage points in Hesse compared to 2013, a fortnight after losses on a similar scale in Bavaria. Chancellor Merkel, who has led the party since 2000, was due to stand again in December to be voted in as leader at a party conference. However, Chancellor Merkel said she made the decision not to run earlier in the year, before the summer break.

Usually, within the party, the chancellor is also the chair of the CDU, but this is not enshrined in stone. Ms. Merkel said she believed the same person should hold both posts but she had decided stepping down as party head but not as chancellor would help the party as it searches for a new leader.

Speculation had spiked several times in recent months that Chancellor Merkel would stand down or fall in a political crisis. Now, going forward, lawmakers will likely be distracted as focus turns to who will replace her as chancellor.

Following in Merkel’s place as leader of the CDU

Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, also known as “AKK” or “mini-Merkel,” Jens Spahn and Armin Laschet were some of the names mentioned as possible successors to lead the CDU. The person who becomes CDU leader would also be in a strong position to become chancellor one day, likely in 2021 when the next federal election is due, or should Ms. Merkel decide to stand down sooner.

Mr. Merz would be interested in the post of CDU chairman, people familiar with the matter told Bild, Germany’s most popular newspaper. He is a senior CDU politician turned chairman of Blackrock Germany, who from 2000 until 2002 held the powerful post as leader of the Christian Union’s parliamentary group, also serving as deputy to Chancellor Merkel. He was also cosignatory, last week, of an open letter expressing concern about the future of Europe and calling for greater collaboration on defense and foreign policy.

The second is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, nominated by Ms. Merkel last year to become general secretary of the CDU, a role spanning administrator and spokesperson. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK within the CDU, led Saarland as premier for the past seven years. At midday on Monday, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer also announced her candidacy, sources said.

Jens Spahn’s name was also quick to fall. He was tapped years ago as a potential successor to Chancellor Merkel and has been a constant challenger within her party. Others named Armin Laschet, the CDU premier in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Heiner Bremer, a German political commentator, said Ms. Merkel was unlikely herself to nominate someone to follow in her shoes but would be more likely to pass on such recommendations via politicians within the party who enjoy more support.

The timing of the announcement

After speculation by media and politicians alike around why the chancellor made the announcement, Ms. Merkel said she had decided to signal that she had heard the message voters were sending. In recent months, as the far-right Alternative for Germany gains power throughout the country, the CDU has faced growing criticism for failing to listen to voters’ concerns.

International media expressed concern that she would be distracted from major issues abroad such as Brexit and hoped she would stick around to accompany the process. Others, however, were keen to see Ms. Merkel abandon the political stage.

Christian Lindner, the head of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, said that Ms. Merkel dropped the wrong post, implying she should step down as chancellor, amid criticism of the sclerotic grand coalition between the CDU and the Social Democrats, or SPD. “The CDU should make way for a new start in a government or a new election in Germany,” he told NTV, a TV channel.

In the press conference subsequently, Ms. Merkel said indeed she sought to pave the way for future changes and believed this was the best way forward for a responsible party chairwoman. She reminded listeners she had always wanted to exercise her post with dignity, and likewise, leave in a dignified manner.

The turmoil within the CDU is echoed on the other side of the political aisle, in the SPD, which also suffered dramatic losses in both state elections. It remains to be seen whether leadership changes in Germany’s two big tent parties can address their ebbing support in a changing political landscape, as voters head to the Greens or the AfD.

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsbaltt Global. To contact the author: williams@handelsblatt.com

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