As I walked the streets of an overcast Munich early this week, the news hit like a thunderbolt: while intending to finish her term as chancellor, Angela Merkel will surrender her leadership of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at the party’s conference in Hamburg in early December. Especially for many younger Germans, the news came as a deep shock: after 18 years at the helm of the CDU and 13 years atop German politics, Merkel had grown synonymous with both her party and the chancellorship.
In the end, that proved to be her undoing. In the aftermath of the Bavarian regional elections two weeks ago, CDU officials in Berlin blamed their sister party’s poor performance on the cantankerous behavior of Horst Seehofer, the interior minister from Bavaria, and the erratic campaign of Markus Söder, the governor of the state. Both men had aggressively challenged the chancellor’s immigration stance over the summer, leading to a near collapse of the coalition government in Berlin. If anything, so CDU leaders whispered, the Christian Social Union (CSU) had it coming.
In the state of Hessen, CDU party leaders promised, the story would be different. After all, the CDU governor, Volker Bouffier, could boast of a productive working coalition with the Greens, passing one reform after another in a state that encompasses the city of Frankfurt. But in the Hessian capital Wiesbaden the mood was palpably different this weekend. One elderly woman with longstanding CDU ties told me of friends deciding to vote for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country’s rising populist-nationalist party. The reason? To protest Merkel’s past indulgences on the issue of immigration. When the first returns on Sunday evening showed the CDU and Social Democratic Party (SPD) losing over 10 percent each while the Greens gained voters, the implication was undeniable: the Hessen election was overshadowed by the coalition government in Berlin. At 27 percent of the vote state-wide, the CDU had underperformed, missing the 30 percent threshold many observers believed necessary for Merkel to quell the growing unrest in her ranks.
For the chancellor, too, the slide in Hessen was attributable to the poor performance of the current coalition. “The current image of the federal government is unacceptable,” she said this week. For three years, Merkel has sought to shake the refugee albatross. In an emotional speech just last weekend, she laid down an ultimatum in one last attempt to turn the tide. “If we want to spend the rest of the decade debating what happened in 2015, and thereby waste our time, then our party will lose its status,” she explained. “That’s why I demand that we now focus on the future.”
In her fourth term in power, it is unsurprising that Merkel’s brand has grown somewhat stale. But the refugee crisis in particular has robbed her of the political initiative—putting her on the defensive with voters and, ultimately, even within the party apparatus. In September, after years of dominance, she lost a major vote: Volker Kauder, her close ally and head of the CDU parliamentary group for the past 13 years, was upset in leadership elections by Ralph Brinkhaus, a conservative critic of Merkel’s. With public discontent of her leadership penetrating the party leadership, Merkel took drastic action, deciding to sacrifice her party chair to rescue her chancellorship.
In 2004, Gerhard Schröder made a similar calculation, announcing that he would remain chancellor but surrender the party leadership of the SPD. At the time, Merkel, as opposition leader, described the decision as “a total loss of authority” that signaled “the beginning of the end of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.” Today, Chancellor Merkel’s gambit carries with it equal risks. As one CSU official put it to me, “once things begin rolling, they may be impossible to stop.”
Almost immediately after her press conference, three of Merkel’s potential successors announced their candidacies for the December party meeting. The minister of health, Jens Spahn, offers a youthful, conservative alternative to Merkel; despite his political gifts, however, he is considered somewhat unproven. By contrast, the CDU general-secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, shares Merkel’s ideological centrism. As the two-time governor of Saarland she is also considered an impressive campaigner. However, AKK, as she is affectionately known, has not had sufficient time to develop an independent profile from Merkel since taking over as secretary-general in February. In many respects, therefore, she represents continuity. In contrast to Spahn and Kramp-Karrenbauer, the dark horse to watch is Friedrich Merz, a former high-ranking CDU star whom Merkel pushed aside over a decade ago. Still smarting over his dismissal and unquestionably gifted, Merz is known as much for his pro-American, transatlantic outlook as he is for his close ties to the business wing of the party. After years in the private sector, however, it is unclear if he can make the leap back into politics.
If none of these three candidates emerges, the newly elected governor of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet, may throw his hat in the ring. His state and that of Baden-Württemberg will be decisive in deciding the next party chair—a huge advantage should he chose to run. No matter who takes over the CDU, however, they would do well to remember a truism of German politics: No chancellor ever leaves the scene voluntarily and on their own terms. With Angela Merkel’s announcement today, that streak remains intact.