What you need to know about Merkel’s possible successors

A loyal ally and two fierce critics are among the contenders to succeed Germany's Angela Merkel as head of the centre-right CDU party and secure a future shot at becoming chancellor. Here's a look at the top candidates.

What you need to know about Merkel's possible successors
Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Jens Spahn at the CDU regional conferences. Photo: DPA

Merkel ally: 'AKK'

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer during the CDU regional conferences. Photo: DPA

Known as a strong ally of the chancellor, 56-year-old Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is the former premier of Germany's tiny Saarland state. She is a loyal follower of the chancellor's centrist line that has shaped the CDU and German politics over the past two decades.

At Merkel's initiative, she became party General Secretary in February, the number two spot offering a leg-up towards taking the helm.

Often referred to by her initials “AKK”, her Catholic views overlap more with the conservative wing of the CDU than Merkel's on social questions such as abortion or gay marriage.

She has also criticized some aspects of Merkel's border policy, so she's not a cardboard cut out of the chancellor.

Throughout the campaign AKK has played up her long experience in office and her history of winning regional elections, a marked contrast with her two male competitors.

Polls show Kramp-Karrenbauer is the most popular candidate for average voters — but it is unknown what weight this will carry among the 1,001 CDU delegates who will vote in Hamburg on Friday.

SEE ALSO: Survey: Kramp Karrenbauer top choice to replace Merkel as leader

SEE ALSO: 'Anti-Merkel' convinced he can take spot in CDU leadership race

Fresh-faced underdog: Jens Spahn

Jens Spahn. Photo: DPA

Jens Spahn, a hardliner on immigration, is seen by many as the underdog. At 38 years old he's the youngest of the frontrunners, and is also a fierce critic of Merkel.

The chancellor named Spahn as health minister in her fourth government to appease the CDU's conservatives, but he hasn't held back from attacking what he sees as her overly “Social Democratic” party line.

As health minister Spahn has already made his mark, speaking out on issues such as organ donation, which he has suggested should be an opt-out system in Germany, rather than opt-in. And he's also spoken out about insurance contributions, saying that people without children should pay more to help keep the system afloat.

He has sharpened his profile through meetings with right-wing darlings like Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and US ambassador to Berlin Richard Grenell, a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump.

A picture of Grenell and Spahn posing with their respective spouses after a casual dinner in Berlin made headlines in Germany.

But many see the leadership contest as having come too early for the ambitious minister, who has seen supporters desert him in favour of Friedrich Merz despite his attempts to strike a tough tone on migration.

SEE ALSO: Meet the gay rights champion gunning for Merkel's job from the right wing of her party

SEE ALSO: Germany looks beyond Merkel as party prepares to elect successor

Avenger: Friedrich Merz

Friedrich Merz during the CDU regional conferences. Photo: DPA

Corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz, 63, has never forgiven the chancellor for driving him out as head of the party's group of MPs in the Bundestag in 2002.

Like Spahn, financial policy expert and social conservative Merz has complained that Merkel led the CDU too far to the left.

He quit the Bundestag following his defeat at her hands, returning to work as a lawyer and heading the supervisory board of mammoth asset manager BlackRock's German arm.

Merz has been dubbed the 'anti-Merkel' due to his completely different style of politics and delivery as compared to the chancellor.

While he is the clear favourite of pro-business forces in the party and has drawn conservatives away from Spahn with a promise to “halve” the vote share of far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), gaffes have marred his campaign.

Early on, he described himself as a member of the “upper middle class” — only to admit soon after that he earns around one million euros per year.

And he was widely criticized for a suggestion to weaken the constitutional right to asylum in the wake of the 2015-16 refugee influx that has shaken German politics under Merkel.

SEE ALSO: 'I can win back AfD voters': CDU leadership candidate hoping for Merkel's job

SEE ALSO: End of an era: What you need to know about Merkel's planned departure

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.