CDU crisis: Merkel’s would-be successors announce bids for party leader

Political heavyweights in Germany's ruling CDU announced on Tuesday their bids for the crisis-wracked party's top job, pitting a staunch ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel against her nemesis.

CDU crisis: Merkel's would-be successors announce bids for party leader
Jens Spahn (l), Health Minister, und Armin Laschet (both CDU) at a press conference on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union has been in turmoil after her heir apparent Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned as party chief this month over her supposed failure to stop regional MPs from cooperating with the far right.

With its popularity sinking, the party that has dominated German politics for 70 years is seeking a new boss to shake it out of an identity crisis on how to position itself against the resurging extreme right.

READ ALSO: Germany's CDU to decide on Merkel successor in April

Armin Laschet, premier of Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, became the first to throw his name into the hat alongside Health Minister Jens Spahn as his potential deputy.

They will come up against Merkel's longtime rival Friedrich Merz, a 64-year-old corporate lawyer who is popular with the CDU's more conservative factions.

Merz wants to shift the party to the right to woo back voters lost to the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant AfD.

Narrowly beaten for the party top job in December 2018 by Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merz has been waiting in the wings ever since.

With Kramp-Karrenbauer's resignation leaving the party's top brass in disarray, Spahn warned that the CDU was “in the biggest crisis in its history”.

Action has to be taken to ensure that Merkel “is not the last CDU chancellor in Germany”, he said, and that the party does not become a fringe party with “just five percent of the votes”.

The scathing assessment came after the CDU scooped just 11.5 percent in a regional election in Hamburg at the weekend — its second worst result ever in a state poll.

Another candidate, centrist Norbert Röttgen, a former environment minister dismissed by Merkel in 2012, is also expected to put forward a bid.

The outcome of the leadership vote on April 25th will not only set the tone for the party but could also determine whether Merkel would be able to stay German chancellor until next year's elections.

So much anger

Merkel's prefered successor Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation on February 10th after barely a year as head of the party, felled after Thuringia's CDU lawmakers sided with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in a vote for state premier, defying an edict from Berlin not to ally with the extremes.

The watershed in Thuringia underlined the challenge faced by the CDU as the political landscape in Germany becomes more splintered, making it more difficult for parties to form stable majorities.

While Merkel had once consolidated the CDU as Germany's biggest party by shifting her party to the centre, today the far right is on the rise.

READ ALSO: From 'avenger' to 'anti-Merkel': Who could be Germany's next chancellor?

The nationalist AfD has capitalised on anger over Merkel's decision in 2015 to keep Germany's borders open to migrants and despite repeated scandals has held on to double-digit support, with backing still growing particularly in eastern Germany.

Merz has underlined his ambition to halve AfD's backing by wooing its supporters back to the CDU.

But Laschet acknowledged that he was taking a different approach, saying that in Hamburg the party had lost significant ground to the centre-left SPD and the Greens.

For him, the CDU can win only if it is a uniting force.

“We are living in a time… when things are running in opposite directions — on one hand we are economically strong, successful, but despite that, there is a lot of dissatisfaction in society, so much aggression, so much anger, so much hate,” he said, underlining “cohesion” as a key goal.

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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”.