Life after Merkel: CDU to pick new leader in key vote for chancellor’s successor

Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party will elect a new leader on Saturday, in a key vote kicking off the race for Germany's top job as a deadly pandemic roils Europe's biggest economy.

Life after Merkel: CDU to pick new leader in key vote for chancellor's successor
Merkel at a Bundestag meeting in December. Photo: DPA

With just nine months to go before a general election, no candidate stands out in the battle for the chairman post of the party that has dominated German politics for 70 years.

Three men are vying for the job, but have struggled to create momentum with their campaigns overshadowed by the relentless pandemic.

Yet Saturday's vote could lead to a dramatic departure from the middle-ground consensus politics that Merkel has come to be known for internationally, with the veteran politician planning to leave the stage after September's general election.

READ ALSO: Merkel's CDU party to choose new leader at January online congress

In the running is Merkel ally Armin Laschet, the premier of Germany's most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia.

But he is lagging in surveys against the chancellor's arch-conservative rival Friedrich Merz, who has indicated he wants a clean break from the Merkel era.

The third candidate, foreign affairs expert Norbert Röttgen, is polling neck-and-neck with Laschet.

The stakes are high for the vote, described by some as the second most important for Germany this year after the September 26th election.

That is because the winner would be in pole position to lead Merkel's conservatives to the polls and potentially claim her job as she retires after 16 years in power.

But the pandemic has also reshuffled the cards and opened up the possibility that someone else could end up snatching the conservatives' coveted “chancellor candidate” nomination to lead them into the elections.


With the clock ticking down to the vote, the conservative alliance's heavyweights including Merkel's chief of staff Helge Braun have come out to plump for Laschet, dubbed the “continuity candidate”.

Markus Söder, the leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party the CSU, has also voiced backing for Laschet.

Although he was an early favourite, various gaffes in his handling of the pandemic have pushed him way down public approval ratings.

Merz, a veteran hardliner, has promised to shift the party to the right. But some fear that old divisions could surface under Merz.

READ ALSO: Merkel rival Merz in bid to succeed her as German chancellor

His liberal policies may also fail to gain traction with the economy now ailing as successive shutdowns curtail businesses.

Enter Twitter-savvy Röttgen, the outsider campaigning on a promise of modernisation.

Röttgen and Merkel at a foreign policy meeting in January 2019. Photo: DPA

Without a stand-out option, many voices are calling for the conservativealliance to field someone else as its chancellor candidate.

Most popular at the moment is CSU leader and Bavarian state premier Soeder, whose robust response to the pandemic has won him widespread praise and given him a national spotlight.

Another contender could be Jens Spahn, Germany's popular health minister who has thrown his support behind Laschet but has reportedly been sounding out his own chances behind the scenes.

Whoever wins the CDU leadership will be “under pressure for some time”, especially if the result is close, according to Ursula Münch, a professor of political science at the Bundeswehr University in Munich.

Laschet has 'the tools'

Merkel stood down as head of the CDU in 2018 after 18 years, with the party then haemorrhaging support and facing a deep identity crisis over how to position itself against the resurging extreme right.

She was replaced by her preferred candidate Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer.

But Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned after just months in the job over her handling of a regional election scandal.

Two meetings originally planned to elect a new leader have been cancelled because of the Covid crisis.

The CDU will now hold its first ever digital congress on Friday and Saturday, with 1,001 delegates voting for their new leader on the second day.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off round will be held. The choice will then be confirmed by postal ballots.

Merkel, whose popularity has soared in the twilight of her reign over her handling of the pandemic, has repeatedly said she would not endorse any candidate.

But on a visit to North Rhine-Westphalia last summer, she said that Laschet “has the tools” to be chancellor.

By Femke Colbourne

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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”.