BERLIN (AP) – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party will elect a new leader over the weekend, a decision that will help shape the succession of German voters to head the European Union’s largest economy after 16 years in office.
Merkel, now 66, has ruled Germany and Europe through crisis situations since taking office in 2005. But more than two years ago, he said he was not looking for the fifth term as chancellor.
He is now looking for the second new leader of the Christian Democratic Union party since he left that role in 2018. This person will either run as chancellor in the September 26 elections in Germany or have a big say in who runs.
The current leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has announced his resignation last February after failing to force his authority on the party. The decision on his successor was repeatedly delayed by the coronavirus epidemic. Eventually, the CDU decided to hold an online conference this weekend.
Delegates from Germany’s strongest party can choose Saturday from three main candidates who differ significantly, at least in style. There is no clear favorite.
Friedrich Merz, 65, would be an eruption in the Merkel era. The party dominated the center, ending military conscription, allowing, if not same-sex marriage, and admitting, among other things, large numbers of migrants.
It traditionally has a more conservative and business-friendly image, and recently wrote in Der Spiegel magazine that “the CDU, whether it wants to or not, must step out of the shadow of Angela Merkel”.
Merz said he wants to give a “political home” to disillusioned conservatives, but does not move “one millimeter” toward the far-right Germany alternative.
They dare this second candidacy for party leadership after recently losing Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was considered Merkel’s preferred candidate. He led the center-right group in parliament from 2000 to 2002, when Merkel ousted him from this job and left parliament in 2009 – later as a lawyer and head of the supervisory board of BlackRock’s investment manager’s German branch.
He tried to portray his decade as a force out of politics, but government experience is lacking. The governor of Armin Laschet, the most populous state in Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia, recommends this.
Laschet, 59, is a more liberal figure who was elected governor in 2017 in a traditionally center-left citadel and is likely to continue Merkel’s centrist approach. In a debate among the candidates last week, he said: “What I bring is the government experience, the leadership of the big state, the balance of different interests, and – this may not hurt the CDU leader – he won an election.”
The third contender, Norbert Roettgen, lost the 2012 state election in North Rhine-Westphalia. Merkel was then fired as Germany’s environment minister. Roettgen, 55, said he learned from this experience. He has declared himself a candidate for the ‘modern center’, emphasizing issues such as the fight against climate change.
Roettgen, who is currently chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, has long been considered an outsider, but surveys show it has gained more and more ground among CDU supporters. Last week, he suggested it be a tasty alternative for both Merz and Laschet supporters.
“I’m not in a camp,” he said. “I stand by everyone and I think those who don’t vote for me will be able to live with me and accept it if they choose.”
Laschet is the only candidate who had to make big decisions in the coronavirus epidemic. It is both a strength and a weakness: it has increased its visibility, but it has received mixed criticisms, notably as a loud advocate for easing restrictions after the first phase of the pandemic.
The CDU as a whole has benefited from the coronavirus crisis and a strong poll led to an unusually uncertain election year thanks to a good assessment of Merkel’s role as a pandemic leader. It is uncertain whether any of these candidates would be able to take the ratings to the election. Saturday’s decision will not be the last word for the center-right chancellor candidate.
This is partly because the CDU is part of the Union bloc, which also includes its sister party, the Christian Social Union, which operates only in Bavaria. The two sides will decide together who will start for Merkel’s work, although no timetable has been set.
Markus Soeder, head of the CSU, is himself a potential candidate. The Bavarian governor grew bigger in the pandemic as he was a strong advocate of strict restrictions on curbing the coronavirus and his polling rating exceeds that of CDU candidates.
And some see Health Minister Jens Spahn, who wants to become vice-president of the CDU under Laschet, see a chance.
Whoever starts will face Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, a candidate from the struggling center-left Social Democrats, currently Merkel’s junior coalition partner, and the environmental Greens candidate, who plan to make their first chancellery.
The head of the CDU is elected by 1001 delegates. If no candidate gets the majority, there will be a runoff. Under German law, the online result must be confirmed by a postal vote, the results of which are expected on 22 January.
The plan is for only the Saturday winner candidate to be on this ballot.
Unity is “the top priority for everyone,” outgoing head Kramp-Karrenbauer told the dpa news agency. – And this is my big request to the party.