Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has thrown German politics into a period of uncertainty. John Ryan writes that the affair could ultimately hasten the departure of Angela Merkel as German chancellor.

The race to succeed Angela Merkel as German leader has been thrown wide open after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), the woman long seen as her anointed heir, said she would not run for chancellor in next year’s election. AKK is also to stand down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party she has led since December 2018, in a move that will usher in a new era of uncertainty in German politics.

The election of AKK was supposed to mark continuity with the path Merkel had forged which had made the CDU a party of the centre. Merkel had resigned the party leadership and helped AKK to take it, against her better judgment, after saying for years she believed the same person should be party leader and chancellor and after remarking to an interviewer that she did not believe in managed successions. As often in her career, Merkel made compromises that worked at the time but not necessarily long-term. AKK appealed to conservative family values and espoused socially conservative positions on same-sex marriage and abortion, and appeared to have a liberal immigration stance in the CDU spectrum.

AKK’s effective resignation came after the CDU was party to a deal that installed liberal free democrat (FDP) Thomas Kemmerich as the premier of the German state of Thuringia, with the support of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), marking the first time since World War II that a state premier was elected with the help of the far right.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Credit: Olaf Kosinsky / Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0-de via Wikimedia Commons

AKK had urged the Thuringian CDU not to enter into the election pact with the AfD and vote for Kemmerich, but the regional party went ahead against her wishes. Their insubordination underscored her waning authority in the party. The FDP’s national leader Christian Lindner faced a full-on revolt in his own party after he seemed to support Kemmerich’s decision to accept the AfD’s support. He survived a confidence vote on 7 February, but there may be damage to the party’s national reputation and electoral chances in the future. Kemmerich then resigned on 8 February with immediate effect following the backlash after his controversial election.

The outcry was felt nationwide and included Merkel, who said that Kemmerich’s election represented a “bad day for democracy”. She called the alliance “inexcusable” and asked for the vote to be reversed. Merkel subsequently also dismissed a minister for praising Kemmerich’s election. Christian Hirte had tweeted his congratulations, telling Kemmerich: “Your election as a candidate of the middle shows once again that the Thuringian [left-wing] red-green alliance has been voted out for good.” Hirte later confirmed that he had been fired. “Chancellor Merkel has told me… that I can no longer be the Federal Government Commissioner for the new states,” he wrote. “Therefore, following her suggestion, I have asked for my discharge.” The crisis gave the impression that the Federal CDU party did not have control of its regional structures in the former East Germany and severely challenged the authority of AKK.

AKK, who was promoted first to leader of the CDU in 2018 and then to the post of defence minister, was often described as the “mini-Merkel” who would grow to fill the German chancellor’s shoes. However, after poor results for the CDU in Saxony, Brandenburg, Thuringia and the European elections, questions have been growing over her ability to be a vote winner and a natural successor to Merkel. Many public polls had shown that the respondents considered AKK as not suited to taking over as chancellor.

The European Parliament elections in May 2019 were AKK’s first test in a national vote since replacing Merkel as leader of the CDU six months earlier. Her party took a beating, walking away with just 28% of the vote – down 7 percentage points since 2014 – and lost more than 1 million votes at the ballot box, largely to the Green Party.

The current political crisis further reinforces Germany’s inward-looking attitude and lack of European political ambition at a key moment for the European Union which needs the country’s full political weight: Berlin will take over the rotating EU Presidency on 1 July. Major issues are building up during 2020, such as the future relationship with the United Kingdom, trade and security tensions with the US, EU budget discussions and the EU-China Summit in Leipzig in September.

According to the timetable AKK presented, she plans to remain in office as party leader of the CDU until the next regular congress in December 2020. At that gathering, the CDU would choose a new chair, who would then also be nominated as top candidate for the next elections. Merkel and her coalition government could remain in place until the autumn of 2021, according to AKK’s plan. Can the CDU’s leadership issues wait that long? Leading members of the CDU have expressed their concerns that the timetable is too long. The greater the wait, the greater the instability, they argue, amid fears that the AfD will seek to fill the political vacuum.

Merkel’s presence is hindering the CDU’s ability to restructure itself. The SPD meanwhile warned the CDU it would be prepared to withdraw from the coalition if Merkel was to be prematurely ousted as chancellor ahead of the next scheduled federal election by October 2021.

The CDU has been losing supporters both to the Greens on the left and the AfD on the right, which means that AKK has failed to achieve her stated goal of shoring up the party’s role as an umbrella political force of the centre. The issue runs deeper than party politics and AKK’s resignation, however. After fifteen years of Chancellor Merkel’s slow-and-steady leadership style, Berlin is struggling to respond to new challenges with new ideas. Her leadership transition plan has failed and the chances of the CDU/CSU winning the next federal election in 2021 look uncertain.

The party is divided about the best way forward, while the Greens are emerging as the party that could have the largest share of the vote in 2021. It’s unsustainable to have a separate party leader and chancellor. The potential successor candidates will have to ask Merkel to step aside as chancellor and call new elections. It therefore may be only a matter of time until Merkel loses the backing of her party and her tenure as chancellor ends.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

John Ryan – LSE IDEAS
Professor John Ryan is a Fellow at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Network Research Fellow at CESifo, Munich, Germany. He previously was a Fellow at St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, Germany.

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