Merkel bows out to applause as CDU prepares to vote on successor
Angela Merkel received rapturous applause from her Christian Democrats on Friday, after delivering an emotional speech marking the end of 18 years as party leader in which she said she had been honoured to serve them.
Merkel, 64, fought back tears as CDU delegates gave her a 10-minute standing ovation accompanied by cheers and cries of “Danke Angie”. Delegates held posters stating: “Thanks boss, for 18 years of leadership”.
The vote for Merkel’s successor is due later on Friday following a nail-biting contest and the first open CDU leadership race in almost 50 years.
In the running are the party’s general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, millionaire businessman Friedrich Merz, and Jens Spahn, currently health minister in Merkel’s government.
Whoever wins is tipped to become chancellor and take over Merkel’s role as the most powerful politician in Europe.
Admitting she had sometimes been an “infuriating” leader, “driving some to distraction with my last-minute decision-making” – a reference to her controversial decision to open Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees – Merkel said it was now time for the CDU to “embark on a new chapter”.
She urged the party to ensure it was “well-equipped, motivated and united” to face the tough challenges of the future.
More than 1,000 party delegates will be eligible to vote on what has been described as the most momentous decision for the party in nearly 50 years and one that will decide the direction not only of the CDU, but also of their country and their continent.
Initially described as the frontrunner, Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, who has 18 years of frontline political experience including six years as leader of the state of Saarland, has faced tough competition from Merz, the CDU’s former parliamentary leader who has parachuted in from his high-powered job as an economics lawyer in the banking industry, insisting he can win back many of the millions of voters the party has lost to rightwing populism.
Merkel had refused to publicly endorse any candidate, though Kramp-Karrenbauer is said to be her clear choice, not least because she propelled her to the position of CDU general secretary in February.
But she pointedly used her 30-minute valediction to praise Kramp-Karrenbauer for taking the CDU to a 40% victory in the state of Saarland last year, when she was leader of the state, and added: “We have the strength to break trends, to win elections, if we fight together and decisively.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer was seen to fight back tears.
The vote is due to take place on Friday afternoon, and unless one candidate wins a clear majority, is expected to continue into a second round runoff between the two most popular candidates. A final result is expected in the evening.
Ahead of the trio presenting themselves to delegates, leading party members who have previously been deeply critical of Merkel heaped praise on her in a string of speeches that acknowledged her profound impact on modernising the party almost beyond recognition from a deeply conservative to a solidly centrist force. The party has increasingly turned its back on her since the refugee crisis of 2015 – when she was accused of failing to secure either party or parliamentary backing before her decision to allow over a million refugees to enter Germany – but this was barely alluded to, except by observers on the sidelines.
One, a 77-year-old party member, referred to the accolades as “hypocritical”. “These are the very people who will be glad to see the back of her,” he said. “But they will miss her.”
For the past few days German television has repeatedly replayed highlights from Merkel’s time as leader, including footage of her acceptance speech in 2000, when she appeared almost embarrassed to be taking on the role of the leader of one of Europe’s most powerful conservative forces. She became chancellor five years later.
The CDU now faces a dilemma, to either keep itself on the course set by Merkel – who was determined to secure the centre ground and has turned it into a champion of gay marriage, a minimum wage and a quota for women in politics – or to take it more to the right in an attempt to win back voters it has lost to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Kramp-Karrenbauer, variously dubbed mini-Merkel or Merkel’s crown princess, offers a similar path to her mentor’s, although the 56-year-old has been adamant she will carve out her own line.
Merz, by contrast, has indicated he would move to the right, and has promised that by the next parliamentary election in 2021, he will be able to cut support for the AfD in half.
Spahn, once seen as a frontrunner in his attempt to succeed Merkel, has been considered an outsider since Merz announced his decision to run less than half an hour after Merkel said she would no longer be standing for the CDU leadership on 29 October, after the party suffered a disastrous result in elections in the state of Hesse.
Merkel has expressed her determination to stay on as chancellor for the remaining three years of her term in office. Fifty-six per cent of Germans support her decision to do so.
Her reason not to stand for re-election as head of the party is seen as strategic, allowing the party – which she joined at the age of 35 following the collapse of the Berlin Wall – to recalibrate and prepare for the next election.
But it also allows her to elegantly choreograph her own departure from the political stage, something few top leaders are able to do.
The strategy is not without risk. Merkel will have to work closely with the next CDU head, who could attempt to undermine her and could also potentially oust her as leader.
Merz, who was pushed out of his position as CDU parliamentary leader by Merkel in 2002 and is said to be still smarting over the humiliation, would be her toughest potential partner. Kramp-Karrenbauer is likely to be less antagonistic and to want to work in tandem with her.
Of the delegates selected by region to vote, 150 are MPs. Observers believe that they are likely to be more in favour of continuity – that is Kramp-Karrenbauer – so as not to risk losing their seats if there is a new election.
A poll by Deutschlandtrend of CDU members – which gives no clear indication of how the 1,000 delegates will decide – showed Kramp-Karrenbauer to be on 47, up 1% from a few days ago, Merz on 37, a rise of six points, and Spahn on 12.
CDU members, more than 1,600 journalists and hundreds of diplomatic observers from around the world poured into the northern port city of Hamburg – where, by coincidence, Merkel was born in 1954.
It marks the first time since 1971 that the party has been able to vote for a new leader. Most decisions have been made in backroom deals in which the party members have had little or no say. The longest-serving head of the party was Helmut Kohl, who held the post between 1973 and 1998.
Merkel said in her speech that the CDU had produced the chancellor for 50 out of the almost 70 years since the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.
The two leading contenders
The 56-year-old lawyer has an 18-year unbroken track record of holding positions of responsibility within the CDU. She has been interior minister of the state of Saarland before becoming its leader, a position she held for six years, and earlier this year was elected to the post of general secretary of the CDU securing 99% of party support.
She remains loyal to the small town of Püttlingen in the western German state where she was born in 1962, the fifth of six children, and where she still lives. Those who know her insist that this connection with her origins is the reason for the down-to-earth nature and strong sense of reliability for which she is well known.
Married to a mining engineer with whom she has three children, AKK faced the challenge during the leadership battle of both wanting to appear to support Merkel and signalling that she would take the party in a new direction. What she has said about the Merkel era became something of a slogan for her candidacy: “One cannot arbitrarily continue in the same vein, neither can one dismiss it.”
While she generally supported Merkel’s open-door policy towards migrants, she has admitted that grave mistakes have been made, and has pushed for a ban on refugees with criminal convictions being allowed back into Germany. She has pledged to listen to the party more than Merkel did, and to be less passive, and more willing to challenge the status quo, repeatedly using the complex phrase “the normative power of facts” (“die normative Kraft des Faktischen”) to argue: “I will be less inclined to accept as immutable fact that things are the way they are.”
A staunch Catholic, AKK has spoken out in favour of a ban on doctors who carry out abortions being able to advertise their services, after a court case propelled the topic into the headlines, and is also openly sceptical about the “marriage for all” law campaigned for by her opponent, Jens Spahn, who is married to his male partner. He has accused her of comparing his union to incest and polygamy.
Kramp-Karrenbauer says she was taken aback when Merkel announced at the end of October she would not be standing again. They were said to be reasonably close, and the lack of communication between the two raised eyebrows at the time. Merkel has done nothing to show her support of AKK during the campaign.
But, as both women will be aware, an endorsement from Merkel – already associated with an era from which the party is desperate to move on – may well have done more to hinder than to help her chances.
Nicknamed “two-jets Merz” by some of the German media, the 63-year-old businessman nearly fell at the first hurdle of this campaign after it emerged he has two private planes which he uses to fly between his home town of Brilon in the western state of North Rhine Westphalia and Berlin.
He also caused a media row after declaring himself to be a member of the middle classes despite admitting to earnings of about €1m a year. The economics lawyer was a senior member of the party before leaving for a job in banking over a decade ago after being pushed aside by Merkel as parliamentary leader of the CDU in 2002.
Many observers described his departure as “sulky” and have viewed his attempts to take over the party as little more than an act of revenge. Unlike the other two candidates, who took a week to announce their decisions to stand, Merz threw his hat into the ring just 29 minutes after Merkel announced she would not stand again.
He has repeatedly dismissed the suggestion he was acting out of revenge using a favourite phrase “tempi passati” (past times) and has been quick to dampen fears that the two old rivals, he and Merkel, will not be able to work smoothly alongside each other as party leader and chancellor, and that he might even try to trigger early elections to oust her from office.
At the series of rallies staged across the country ahead of the vote, Merz consistently received the warmest support. While many within the party resent his self-promotion as a modernising knight in shining armour, his supporters pushed the image of someone who could renew the party’s flagging fortunes and in one survey of company bosses, 70 out of 114 said they were in favour of him.
He is adamant that he can slash support for the rightwing populist AfD – by 50% at the next federal election, scheduled for 2021, referring to them as “openly national socialist”.
Merz has been insistent that his years of experience in the world of global business – he is on the board of investment bank Black Rock and HSBC among others – serve him well to make Germany fit for the future. He has angrily denied any involvement in financial wrongdoing for which both of the organisations are being investigated.
A Catholic and a clarinet player, Merz is married to a local court director with whom he has three children and three grandchildren, and pushed his image as a family man throughout the campaign. He was constantly flanked by a team of aides and PR advisers, in contrast to his two far more accessible opponents.