In Focus

Who will succeed Angela Merkel in one of Europe’s most powerful roles?

German chancellor’s CDU party will elect a new leader this week

Back in the autumn of 2018, German Chancellor Angela Merkel resigned as leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). 

Merkel had held the reins of what The Guardian describes as “Europe’s most successful postwar party” since 2000 before handing over to her successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer - widely known as AKK.

AKK was forced to resign last February, however, amid a row over the CDU collaborating with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Now, after the leadership battle was delayed by the arrival of Covid in Europe, the CDU is gearing up to choose a new leader at a virtual party congress on Saturday.

Why does the election matter?

As one of Europe’s most powerful economies, Germany is one of the EU’s most influential players. Or as The Economist puts it, “German power in Brussels is the political equivalent of dark matter: invisible, difficult to measure and yet everywhere”. 

The CDU, meanwhile, has been the majority party in coalition governments in Germany since 2015, alongside its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), while holding the powerful chancellery - Merkel’s role.

Who wins the party leadership will therefore have “big implications for the European Union, as well as its most powerful member state”, The Guardian says. 

And with key issues in the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the bloc still to be ironed out, the potential prospect of a “significant fork in the road” for the CDU could also have major implications for Britain, the paper adds.

Runners and riders

The three candidates in the CDU leadership battle are all middle-aged men from the state North-Rhine Westphalia: Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Roettgen.

Laschet is “ostensibly the front runner”, The Times reports. The “folksy and jovial” chief minister of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s largest state, is “generally regarded as a centrist figure in the Merkel tradition”, the paper continues.

Merkel said in August that Laschet had “the tools” to succeed her, but amid the second wave of coronavirus in Germany, he has “fallen behind his rivals in polls of CDU members and the wider electorate”.

Meanwhile, Merz has been characterised by critics as “an anachronism, a man from the 1990s who wanted to drag the CDU back to its conservative past”, says the Financial Times (FT).  A “millionaire corporate lawyer who defends traditional values”, Merz is running as an unapologetic right-winger and has argued that CDU has “drifted too far to the left under his old rival”, the paper adds.

The final leadership contender, Roettgen, is regarded as a foreign policy expert and like Laschet, is seen as “more Merkel-friendly” than Merz, The Guardian reports. 

With national elections scheduled for later this year, Roettgen has been “eyeing a potential post-election coalition with the Greens” and “has also made a point of saying that the party must deepen its appeal to young, progressive voters through ambitious environmental programmes and digital investment”, the paper continues. 

Recent polling by Der Spiegel suggests the race remains open, although the majority of party officials - who will select the winner - are narrowly backing Roettgen. 

Whoever claims victory, the election outcome will affect the future of both the CDU and the EU.

Pundits predict that Laschet and Roettgen would lead in a style familiar to Europe after 15 years of Merkelism. But Merz’s “hawkish economic views and social conservatism” would herald a significant shift in tone from Europe’s most powerful democracy, says The Guardian.

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