(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel inserted herself into the selection of her Christian Democratic party’s next chancellor candidate after her former protege unexpectedly threw in the towel, leaving the race to lead Europe’s largest economy wide open.
The long-time German leader said she will “cooperate very well” with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who stepped down as party chief on Monday after a series of gaffes capped by her inability to reel in a rogue state chapter. With the party divided and rudderless, Merkel made clear that she intended to play a direct role in choosing her potential successor.
“I acknowledged this decision today with the greatest amount of respect, but I want to say that I regret it,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “I can well imagine that this was not an easy decision for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and I thank her that she’s prepared to accompany the process for choosing a candidate for the chancellorship as party chairwoman.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer, widely known by her initials AKK, was hand-picked by Merkel to safeguard her legacy. The former state leader from Saarland held off a challenger from a more conservative faction within the CDU who wanted more support for business and less emphasis on the environment and social issues.
While those demands are likely to return, Merkel is in position to steer the process toward more centrist candidates as the leadership race heats up before she plans to step down next year at the latest.
AKK was unable to stamp her authority on the party since taking charge of the CDU in December 2018 and was humiliated last week when a local chapter in eastern Germany defied her orders and threw its lot in with the far-right Alternative for Germany.
Hanging over the process is the dilemma of how the CDU should handle the return of far-right politics in the former communist east. Many voters there have turned to the AfD because they feel left behind during years of economic growth and resent Berlin’s perceived largess toward refugees. The party’s official stance is that there can be no cooperation with the AfD at any level, but local officials have been questioning whether that remains practical.
AKK’s downfall was ultimately triggered when the CDU in Thuringia voted alongside the AfD to elect a state premier last week. Local leader Mike Mohring has been forced to back track, but other CDU officials in the east have signaled sympathy for his move as he tries to maintain support for the party.
The CDU’s flirtation with the AfD is “very worrisome,” said Norbert Walter-Borjans, the co-leader of the Social Democrats, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, which is also searching for a candidate to lead its next national election campaign. “Her manoeuvring gave the right-wing forces within the party the space to trigger the acute crisis in the CDU.”
AKK told party colleagues at a meeting in Berlin that one reason for her decision is the unclear relationship between parts of the CDU and the far-right AfD and the anti-capitalist Left party. At a press conference in Berlin, she underscored her stand that the CDU needs to be strictly opposed to any cooperation with the two fringe parties.
The outgoing CDU leader said that she believes her successor should also be the candidate for chancellor in 2021. She plans to organize the selection process by the summer and then step down once a decision has been made. The new direction should be sealed at a party convention in December.
“We must be stronger, stronger than today,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a brief press conference in Berlin. “By refraining from running for chancellor, I can be much more free in shaping the process,” she said, adding that her decision would not impact the stability of the coalition.
AKK’s departure was welcomed by the party’s right. Olav Gutting, a lawmaker who has been critical of Merkel’s moderate course, said mistakes had “piled up” under AKK and her departure spares the CDU a “destructive test.”
“Regardless of personal sympathy, one has to see that the base had growing doubts about AKK’s capabilities for the chancellorship,” Gutting told Bloomberg News. He declined to speculate on her successor, which he expected to be in place in the second half of the year.
Merkel asked AKK, who is her defense minister, to stay on in her position in the cabinet, an official said. She took the cabinet post in July when it was vacated by Ursula von der Leyen, who had been appointed as European Commission president.
Ill-at-ease, isolated, and struggling for relevance, the CDU leader failed to unite the party behind her. She made a series of gaffes that irritated insiders and made her widely unpopular with voters. Officials at CDU headquarters in Berlin had become increasingly worried that their leader won’t be a viable candidate.
Thuringia was her final debacle. Even as she sought to clear up the mess, she was unable to convince local officials to support new elections in the region as a way to clear the slate in a five-hour meeting that lasted until early Friday.
Her retreat opens the way for others to press forward to lead Germany’s strongest party. Potential contenders are deputy chairman Armin Laschet, a well connected state leader from North Rhine-Westphalia; up-and-coming Health Minister Jens Spahn; former Merkel nemesis Friedrich Merz; and Markus Soeder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU sister party.
With Merkel pulling the strings, the process could favor Laschet, who is more centrist than the other top contenders.
(Adds SPD leader comment)
To contact the reporters on this story: Arne Delfs in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org;Patrick Donahue in Berlin at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chad Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org, Ben Sills, Chris Reiter
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