In Germany, candidates to replace AKK need to learn from her mistakes
Angela Merkel’s designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), last week announced she would not run for Germany’s chancellorship in a move only a few could have predicted. The ensuing uncertainty is characteristic of a nation still divided on which way to go after 15 years of stalwart Merkel centrism, which has survived a seemingly endless series of crises both domestically and abroad. In that time, France has had four presidents, the UK is on its fifth prime minister, and Italy its seventh.
Across the Atlantic, an exhausted Washington, wistful for the comforts of insularity and non-interventionism, inadvertently passed the mantle to a distracted Europe still trying to clear the debris from the eurozone debt crisis. Aside from sluggish growth, the crisis engineered major political shifts in 10 out of 19 EU countries — boosting Euroskeptic nationalists and thereby threatening the EU’s cohesion. Chancellor Merkel not only managed to secure consecutive electoral victories, she has skillfully navigated the many pitfalls that sank her contemporaries in the years covering the war on terror, the global financial crisis, Daesh, Brexit and “America First.”
However, Merkel has vowed to stand down next year, unleashing a flurry of speculation and punditry concerning who will succeed her. Her preferred candidate, AKK, who took over as leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2018, decided to stand down after delegates from her party defied a ban on cooperating with the far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
The move to install a state premier from a smaller political party, shunning the more popular left-wing candidate, not only revealed a lack of confidence in AKK’s leadership — it also rekindled premature debates about the demise of the CDU. Additionally, it upended any plans for a smooth transition to a post-Merkel era and forced a rethink of what that might look like, as well as when it will begin, since there are no term limits for German chancellors, opening up the possibility of Merkel staying at the helm for a little longer.
AKK’s demise was not without its “winners.” The events in the state of Thuringia have sparked intense discussions on whether the CDU may need to actively curb a far-right encroachment by completely shunning the AfD or considering some form of power-sharing arrangement at a regional level. However, such debates will likely brush up against the CDU’s big tent dynamics, which have seen it dominate German politics for decades.
AKK’s attempt at exorcising the far-right may have backfired, but many believe it was a necessary step for Merkel’s successor to make in order to brush off any intimidation or humiliation from the far right. Thus, it is up to the four front-runners who are seeking to replace AKK to learn from her downfall and start amassing the political capital to assuage any wary CDU leaders who are already planning on siding with the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt’s June 2021 elections.
A return to the CDU’s right-leaning ideology, clearly demarcated from and resistant to working with the AfD, would certainly benefit two of the four candidates: Bavaria’s state premier Markus Soeder and staunch right-winger Friedrich Merz, who lost to AKK in the race for the CDU leadership in 2018. The former is the leader of the CDU’s more socially conservative sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), who is keen on a coalition with the Greens, which is currently in second place in national polls. His rapid denouncement of the developments in Thuringia may win him some support from purists both within and outside the CDU, but for the wary, ideological purity is anathema to the CDU’s big tent dynamics.
Merz portrays himself as an outsider, untarnished by a political establishment steeped in Merkel’s centrism — but his high net worth is likely to cost him broader support among most Germans, who prefer a well-structured, middle class-oriented society and are, thus, mistrustful of the wealthy.
On the flip side, two other candidates appear to subscribe to Merkel’s ideology-free centrism and, so far, the pragmatists are winning. Former Merkel critic and now Health Minister Jens Spahn has impressed with his legislative maneuvering and, at just 39 years of age, his “youth” appears in line with a recent trend of youngish leaders cropping up across Europe, in defiance of the older, more seasoned political mavericks.
The surest path to securing the leadership of the CDU is within Merkel’s shadow, not outside of it.
State premier of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet, on the other hand, appears to have all the cards in his hands, seeing as fellow front-runners Merz and Spahn hail from the state he runs, which has the biggest CDU delegation. This affords Laschet significant leverage, which could be utilized to “reward” the support of fellow contenders by offering Cabinet positions or even a parliamentary leadership — often a stepping stone to the chancellorship.
Laschet has already demonstrated such political savvy and has significant links with other political parties, from the Free Democrats he governs with in North Rhine-Westphalia to the Greens — a potential CDU kingmaker given its stellar performance in national polls. Such maneuvering is reminiscent of Merkel’s style of leadership and its familiarity is likely to win him support even among fence-sitters, given the chancellor’s unrivaled moderating influence. His friendship with Merkel acknowledges a crucial fact missed by AKK — that the surest path to securing the leadership of the CDU is within Merkel’s shadow, not outside of it.
In the end, it can only be hoped that, in an unstable world beset by coronavirus, trade wars and American absenteeism, Germans will opt for the familiar instead of stoking more uncertainty, as the CDU attempts to realign itself and undo years of Merkel’s centrist pragmatism. After all, the EU may not survive a political earthquake in its largest country just before Berlin assumes the presidency of the EU’s Council of Ministers amid budget controversies, the bloc’s expansion into the Balkans, and managing a soft landing after the UK’s exit. The CDU’s planned leadership transition in December may have to be moved up several months, meaning that debates about the party’s future direction will have to take a back seat in favor of the practical and proven, paying close attention to not turning off potential coalition partners by flirting with the AfD.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell