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The quick end of the post-Merkel era in the German CDU. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stepping down after parliamentarian disaster

The chairwoman of the conservative Party, minister of defense and most likely successor of Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (commonly known as AKK), gave up on Monday morning after a political earthquake, caused by a federal state election in East Germany. After little more than one year and – and a brief period of initial momentum – she announced to step down in the coming months as party lead and that she will not run for Angela Merkel’s heritage in the chancellery. Kramp-Karrenbauer will keep her role as minister of defense for the time being, though.

AKK never got a vast majority of the conservative party behind her person. Too deep the concerns about her leadership skills, too obvious the affection of the more conservative part of the party to her rival Friedrich Merz, the fragile and wishful promise of the conservative past of the CDU. A party that was shifted successfully way to the centre by predecessor and long-time mentor Angela Merkel. After 15 years of Angela Merkel’s reign, the country as well as the party is entering now (again) new ground of uncertainty about the near future leadership, a feeling which was long gone for a lot of voters despite party segmentations.

Still, AKKS’s move came rather surprisingly, showing her consequence while ironically Christian Lindner, head of the Liberal Party (FDP) and foremost responsibly for the outcome in Erfurt, Thuringias capital, is still in charge. 

As another side fact Kramp-Karrenbauer is joining Angela Merkel and Andrea Nahles (former head of the ailing social democratic SPD, stepping down after the disastrous outcome in the European Elections) in a row of women, who knew the right timing to draw a line in opposition to the tradition of power-clinching male politicians.

The Thuringian Earthquake

What lead to the decision which is shaking up the CDU in brief: After two unsuccessful attempts by the popular incumbent Bodo Ramelow (Die Linke), who did not got enough votes for being elected in the standard procedure, Thomas Kemmerich (FDP) ran for election as Prime Minister of the Free State in the third ballot with no secured majority. Eventually he got elected by the CDU, FDP and the extreme right AfD - and accepted the election with knowledge of the origin of the votes. Unprecedented and scandalous in the younger German history. The coup by the Thuringian was done.

Kemmerich, head of the smallest parliamentary group, which in the election in October only passed the 5% threshold with only 73 votes, became the first German prime minister to be elected with the votes of the right-wing AfD. A taboo breach that is second to none and whose echo came quickly and clearly: All over Germany, thousands of people spontaneously gathered in front of FDP party headquarters to protest the decision. Cross-party leaders from CSU to Left Party condemned the election. Chancellor Angela Merkel called it an “unforgivable mistake”.

It caused other personal resignations like the Mike Mohring (Head of the Thuringian CDU’s parliamentary group), Christian Hirte (state secretary and deputy head of Thuringian CDU) and the newly elected prime minister Kemmerich himself. Yet is it not foreseeable if others will follow, the turmoil in German politics is tremendous.

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s hurdles were too high

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s withdrawal can be explained by two mayor challenges of her situation, one of them structural, the other caused by a miscalculation of Merkel in regard of her transition phase.


The competitors

After the first shock, the whole political scene is now watching the moves of the potential successors closely: AKK just told that she is going to meet the three most obvious of her potential follow-ups (see below) in the upcoming weeks to enable a transformation in order. The timeline for the new party leader is still vague: Late spring or summer could be the time for announcement of the chancellor candidate, the election of the party lead might take place around the same time, latest in December. Both positions will be held by the same person unless prime minister of Bavaria and CSU-leader Markus Söder, who quickly evolved from a part-time populist to a stable voice of statesmanship inside the “Union” (CDU/CSU party alliance) will try to run for chancellery as well. A scenario which is unlikely but not to be excluded.

Unlike other parties on the left, the CDU is not used to open competition about leadership. Historically, new leaders evolved organically out of long party-internal playoff processes. The open primary-like party-internal elections between Merz, Spahn and AKK last fall was a novum.

Against the background of this recent practice, sources close to Friedrich Merz tell that he is willing to chair the party and running for chancellery. He is way more conservative than AKK, could sharpen the party’s profile on the right, but be an even bitterer pill to swallow for the Greens as a coalition partner.

Other potential candidates are the young and openly gay minister of health Jens Spahn and prime minister of the most populous and politically influential federal state of Northrine Westfalia Armin Laschet. Spahn is representing the younger generation, delivering a good performance in the unfavorable health department; Laschet a spokesperson for the liberal wing. Hard to tell the chances right now, Laschet because of his integrative personality might has a small advantage. Merz might be too polarizing, Spahn for CDU standards too young. On the other hand: with a pressing AfD, the party might feel urged to make its way back to the right and regain AfD votes. Centrist Merkel aide Laschet might have too less of a conservative profile for this.

However, it will be a long time in which the CDU and the Grand Coalition (GroKo) is now facing the question how to maintain a stable government with a chancellor who already announced her retirement and a party lead who did the same. The fact that the social democratic Party (SPD) as the other part of the “GroKo” just elected two new but controversial (inside and outside the party) leaders after a half-year-long process is way from being set and stable again, does not help either.

In particular, a long time in unstable times, even though Germany faces no big federal state elections except Hamburg in a week from now where the CDU does not play a role at all. The upcoming presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2020 will be more of an argument to regain stability rather sooner than later.

About Russia

In regard of external affairs and the relations to Russia in particular, all of the potential successors like Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer themselves, are taking a rather harsh stance on the sanctions. So do the Greens as an upcoming and most likely governing partner. Parts, but only parts, of the SPD (not foreign minister Heiko Maas); major branches of the left party and minor parts of liberal party are advocating a more moderate approach.

For the CDU, the transatlantic commitment and a strong backing of the alliance, are indisputable parts of their core values. So as long as no major changes in the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine are obvious, a change in the sanction policies is unlikely to be expected. Although the (not unanimous) European Union’s position and the future behavior of US president Trump will have a strong impact on this field.

By Philipp Sälhoff, Managing Director of polisphere think tank, Berlin

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