Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leaders to look to the future and stay true to their values, as the divided conservative party prepares to pick her successor on Friday.
In her final address to the delegates as party chief, Merkel defended the “Christian, democratic” core values of the CDU, which she led for 18 years.
“I wish that in difficult times we shouldn’t forget our Christian and democratic stance,” she said. Her final address was greeted with a nine-minute standing ovation.
Merkel, 64, decided not to seek a re-election to the post but wants to stay on as Germany’s chancellor until 2021.
The frontrunners in the election later on Friday are Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Merkel protege seen as the continuity candidate, and Friedrich Merz, a Merkel rival who has questioned the constitutional guarantee of asylum to all “politically persecuted” and believes Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, should contribute more to the European Union.
Merkel had said in October she would step down as the party chief but remain the chancellor, an effort to manage her exit after a series of setbacks since her divisive decision in 2015 to keep German borders open to refugees fleeing war in the Middle East.
The new CDU leader will be chosen by 1,001 delegates who vote in a secret ballot at a party congress in Hamburg.
The winner will likely lead the CDU in the next federal election, due by October 2021.
A survey by pollster Infratest dimap for broadcaster ARD on Thursday showed 47 percent of CDU members favoured Kramp-Karrenbauer compared with 37 percent for Merz and 12 percent for Health Minister Jens Spahn.
Merz, 63, who lost out to Merkel in a power struggle in 2002 and is returning to politics after a decade in business, is backed by CDU members tired of Merkel’s consensual politics. He won support this week from party veteran Wolfgang Schaeuble.
To win, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast. If there is no winner after the first round of voting, a runoff is held between the two candidates to win most votes.
Deep ideological divides are not normally associated with Merkel’s CDU.
“Their leadership battles were all about power and they were always about who is most likely to get us the biggest share of the vote, so the CDU was always very pragmatic about programmes and ideology,” political analyst Konstantin Voessing told Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane.
“Now it seems for the first time we have an ideologically infused debate that is also manifest in different personalities and that’s very new for the CDU.”
Kane added that the outcome of the leadership election is a effectively a referendum of Merkel’s policy.
While Merkel’s term is set to end in 2021, she could still decide whether or not to stay on as Chancellor depending on the result of the leadership race.
Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, a Merkel ally, said: “I am convinced that with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer we have the best chance of the CDU winning an election.” She would be the most dangerous candidate to face the centre-left Social Democrats and the ecologist Greens, he added.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s trump card is her record as a former state premier in Saarland, where she led a broad coalition with the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats, alliance-building skills useful in Germany’s fractured political landscape.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, has differentiated herself from Merkel on social and foreign policy by voting in favour of quotas for women on corporate boards, opposed by Merkel, and by taking a tougher line on Russia.
But on what lies ahead for the CDU, Kramp-Karrenbauer says: “I have no particular recipe.”
By contrast, Merz takes clear positions that appeal to rank-and-file party members hungry for a more clearly defined party after 13 years under Merkel as chancellor. He wants tax cuts, a stronger EU and a more robust approach to challenging the far-right.
Merz will benefit from the fact that 296 of the delegates at the congress – almost a third – will be from his home state, the western region of North Rhine-Westphalia.
One senior CDU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said many delegates were undecided before the congress and could be swayed by how the candidates present themselves on Friday.
“It could come down to the speeches on the day,” he said.
Merkel has led Germany since 2005 and has moved the party and the country steadily towards the political centre.
“I’m very grateful that I could be party chairwoman for 18 years – it is a very, very long time and the CDU of course had its ups and downs,” Merkel said as she arrived at the conference venue in Hamburg.
“But we won four national elections together… and I am happy I can remain chancellor.”