Pressure is growing on Angela Merkel’s troubled Christian Democratic Union to speed up the process of finding a new leader, amid warnings from senior party members that paralysis within the party could spread across the EU when Germany assumes the rotating presidency of the council of the European Union in the second half of the year.
The German centre-right has been in turmoil since Merkel’s designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, resigned after CDU politicians in the eastern state of Thuringia defied instructions not to side with the far-right in a state election.
While Germany has been abuzz with speculation about who could take the country’s largest and strongest party into the post-Merkel era, the three top contenders have been reluctant to enter the fray.
German media reported on Friday that Kramp-Karrenbauer could up the pace by announcing a timetable, or even her own favourite candidate, on 24 February. The CDU’s press office would neither confirm or deny the reports.
Senior German conservatives warn that leaving the question of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s successorship unresolved until after the summer break would risk spreading the CDU’s paralysis across the affairs of the EU. In July, Germany officially takes over the task of chairing meetings of the council and determining its agendas on issues ranging from Brexit to the “green deal”.
“A lot of people are looking at Germany from the outside,” warned Gunther Krichbaum, the CDU chair of the committee on EU affairs in the Bundestag. “Whether you want it or not, there’s an expectation that Germany and France take up a joint leadership role. We always used to be an anchor of stability in the EU because our big-tent parties were so strong.”
Merkel’s plan to gradually phase out her 20-year career at the forefront of German politics has been in tatters since her heir apparent, “AKK”, announced her resignation on 10 February.
The 57-year-old “mini-Merkel” from the Saarland region had struggled in the seat at the top of Germany’s largest and most powerful party since being elected in December 2018, with many moderates in the party feeling she was suppressing her liberal instincts in order to appease hardliners calling on the CDU to tack right.
In the end, AKK’s undoing came after a bombshell in the small eastern state of Thuringia, where her party ignored the CDU’s “firewall” against the far right by ousting the state’s leftwing premier with the help of votes from the aggressively nationalistic Alternative für Deutschland.
The 63-year-old lawyer left politics for the financial industry about a decade ago, but stepped down from his role at asset manager Blackrock last week, saying he wanted to get "more politically involved" in the future.
Having been ousted as parliamentary leader of the CDU by Merkel in 2002, many have said he has never forgiven the chancellor, though he has downplayed the idea of any lasting resentment towards her.
Merz has built up a personal fortune of millions, including two private jets, which has caused controversy, particularly after he claimed that he remained a member of the middle class.
He promises to return the CDU to its former strong position. He says he can win back millions of voters who drifted to the AfD and has presented himself as more liberal than in the past on issues such as gay marriage
Still aged only 39, the youngest member of Merkel’s fourth cabinet has in the past portrayed himself first and foremost as a critic of the chancellor’s refugee policy, calling it “the white elephant in the room”.
But his stint at the health ministry has revealed a new side to the ambitious and energetic politician, who has fought to introduce policies that weren't a natural fit with his previous free-market conservative profile, such as compulsory measles vaccinations for children.
He is married to his long-term partner Daniel Funke, the editor of society magazine Bunte.
A staunch defender of Merkel's migration policy and an uncompromising critic of the AfD, Laschet holds a natural position of authority in the CDU as premier of the large state of North-Rhine Westphalia.
Laschet pulled off a coup by ousting the Social Democratic Party in this traditional centre-left stronghold in 2017.
Known as a moderate in policy terms, Laschet is also still relatively unknown at federal level.
A politician with a passion for dressing up for carnival in fancy dress (which in the past have included Shreck, Marilyn Monroe and Gandalf from Lord of the Rings), the 53-year-old Franconian used to have a reputation as a somewhat eccentric rabble-rouser.
But since being elected state premier in powerful Bavaria in 2018, Markus Söder has built a profile as a political operator who can do both folksy beer-hall speeches as well as sensible strategy-making, having voiced support for environmental protection schemes in the wake of the rise of Fridays for Future.
His disadvantage? In 70 years of democratic elections in post-war Germany, there has never been a chancellor from the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU.
The crisis in Thuringia remains unresolved, with the CDU’s leader in the eastern state also announcing plans to step down on Friday.
Part of the problem, Kramp-Karrenbauer appeared to hint on Monday, was that any CDU leader would struggle to step out of Merkel’s shadow while she remained in the chancellory and enjoyed high popularity ratings across the country.
In the view of some of Merkel’s critics, the new leader of her party should therefore also be automatically anointed as the CDU’s chancellor candidate for federal elections scheduled for 2021 or, more drastically still, lead the party into snap elections following Merkel’s resignation.
Merkel loyalists in the party warn of a rush for change. “During her tenure Angela Merkel has overseen a process of continuous growth and modernisation with remarkable patience and endurance,” said Kai Whittaker, a delegate from Germany’s south-west.
“The risk with the coming transition process is that the CDU could be dragged into hectic debate full of symbolic gestures and token politics, and lose the calmness that has characterised our party the last 15 years,” Whittaker told the Guardian.
For now, the race for the CDU leadership seems to be losing rather than gaining momentum. Two potential candidates, the youthful health minister, Jens Spahn, and the Merkel loyalist Armin Laschet, have so far declined to throw their hats into the ring. Another rumoured candidate, the Bavarian state premier, Markus Söder, has insisted he is happy to remain in his role in Munich.
Even the veteran rightwinger Friedrich Merz, the candidate of choice for CDU members dreaming of a return to a more openly conservative pre-Merkel era and for the influential mass tabloid Bild, only went as far as not ruling out that he would run.
Ousted by Merkel as the CDU’s parliamentary group leader in 2002, Merz initially wrong-footed supporters and critics alike at a business event in Berlin on Thursday evening, when he described the current chancellor as a “role model” and praised her determined but modest style.
Yet Merz, whom polls see as a favourite for the party leadership, left his audience in no uncertain terms that he embodied a different, many would say more old-fashioned, political style to Germany’s first female chancellor.
Speaking after days of Storm Sabine causing havoc across Germany, he joked: “It’s a complete coincide, by the way, that all ‘lows’ currently have female names.”