Merkel's favoured heir drops out of German chancellor race

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's standing down blows the race to lead the world's fourth-largest economy wide open.

    Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, left, was Angela Merkel's presumed successor as Germany's chancellor [Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters]
    Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, left, was Angela Merkel's presumed successor as Germany's chancellor [Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters]

    The woman who had been expected to become the next chancellor of Germany said on Monday she would not run for the top job, succumbing to a scandal involving the far right and blowing wide open the race to succeed Angela Merkel.

    Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is a protegee of the chancellor and leader of their conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) party, but has faced growing doubts over her suitability to replace Merkel, who has led Germany for 15 years but plans to stand down at the next federal election, due in autumn 2021.

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    Last week, Kramp-Karrenbauer's inability to impose discipline on the conservative Christian Democrats in the eastern state of Thuringia dealt a fresh blow to her credibility - already eroded by a series of gaffes.

    The regional CDU branch defied her by backing a local leader helped into office by the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), thereby shattering a post-war consensus among established parties on shunning the far-right.

    "I will not run for chancellor," Kramp-Karrenbauer, 57, told a news conference in Berlin, adding that she had been building up to the decision for some time and that she made it "with the intention of strengthening the CDU".

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    "In my view, this has no impact on the stability of the grand coalition," she said, referring to the national coalition between Merkel's conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD).

    Her decision not to run for chancellor leaves a big question mark over Germany's future direction just as its economy, the world's fourth largest, flirts with recession and as the European Union struggles to define itself after Brexit.

    "I regard this decision with great respect, though I greatly regret it," Merkel told a news conference on Monday. "I can imagine this wasn't an easy decision for her and I thank her for being prepared to stay on to steer the process of choosing a successor." 

    Merkel has loomed large on the global stage since 2005, helping to steer the EU through the eurozone crisis and opening Germany's doors to migrants fleeing wars in the Middle East in 2015 - a move that still divides the bloc and her country.

    Al Jazeera's Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, said the move was "pretty significant on the face of
    it".

    "This was the lady who has been prepared, been groomed, to take over from Angela Merkel in time to stand as the candidate for her party - the Christian Democrats - in the general election in late summer 2021.

    "All those hopes, those ambitions, are now dashed - dashed because of the perception among people in her party, but also in the wider political classes and in the media, that this person, Kramp-Karrenbauer, had become gaffe-prone, had become unable to lead her party, that she would make statements about wide federal policy, but was not able to really bring the people in the states of Germany with her - people within her own party that is."

    I can imagine this wasn't an easy decision for her and I thank her for being prepared to stay on to steer the process of choosing a successor

    Angela Merkel

    Merkel did not seek re-election to the party chair in 2018, allowing Kramp-Karrenbauer to take the party helm with a view to boosting her profile prior to running for the chancellery. But doubts about her leadership credentials persisted.

    "The separation of chancellorship and party chair, the open question around who will become the candidate for chancellor weakens the CDU at a time... [when] Germany needs a strong CDU," Kramp-Karrenbauer told Monday's news conference.

    "I was the party leader, and I am the party leader, and I will remain in this position for the foreseeable future," she added. "What I have said is that I will not run for chancellor, but other than that the situation has not changed."

    The announcement leaves something of a vacuum at the top of German political parties.

    "When she says nothing has changed, that's really her opinion," reported Kane. "Many people believe the situation has changed radically, because, curiously enough right now, we don't know who will be leading any of the mainstream parties into the general election.

    "Each party has to nominate what's called a 'spitzenkandidat' - the top person, the person who would take the chancellorship if that party emerged as the largest party, which is unlikely, or if that person was someone who could lead a coalition."

    Sigmar Gabriel, a former leader of the SPD, said he expected a snap federal election as Merkel's conservative bloc and the SPD are both struggling to unite their different factions.

    Analysts played down that risk.

    "This is largely a CDU internal issue," said Holger Schmieding at Berenbank, putting the risk of the SPD quitting the coalition early at no more than 25 percent.

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    Who will replace her?

    The far-right scandal in Thuringia proved to be the last straw for Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose ratings plummeted last year after a number of public gaffes, including poking fun at trans-gender people in a light-hearted carnival speech.

    Kramp-Karrenbauer said she would remain party chair until another candidate for chancellor had been found. She will stay on as Germany's defence minister.

    Her erstwhile rivals for the party leadership - Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn - have been circling with intent.

    Businessman Merz has quit asset manager Blackrock to focus more on politics, and Spahn, now health minister, has cut a dynamic figure during the coronavirus crisis, jetting to Paris and London to coordinate the European and G7 response.

    "Now's the right time to provide impetus via economic and financial policy measures," Merz said on Monday in a tweet.

    He later tweeted that he would support Kramp-Karrenbauer's efforts to find a new party leader and chancellor candidate.

    AKK and Merkel - reuters
    Nominating conservative business owner Friedrich Merz as chancellor would indicate a significant right-ward shift for the CDU [Annegret Hilse/Reuters]

    "He's the man who challenged Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer in December 2018," said Al Jazeera's Dominic Kane.

    "He had been a friend of Angela Merkel's until she sidelined him. He has battled back from the political wilderness and ran Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer to a close second. His brand is a more traditional conservatism; much more to the right than has been the case for Angela Merkel - so a choice for him by his party would be a clear sign that the CDU wants to move to the right."

    Spahn and Markus Soeder, leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, both said they respected Kramp-Karrenbauer's decision and stressed that the cohesion of their conservative alliance was now essential.

    "Let's be clear: this [leadership race] will not take place immediately," said Kane. "The current party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, will stay there until the summer, allowing her party the time to try to find other people who might challenge." 

    Alexander Gauland, honorary chairman of the far-right AfD, said Kramp-Karrenbauer had failed to implement the CDU's policy of ostracising the AfD and added that such an approach was unrealistic in the long-term.

    "Its party base has long since recognised this and has thrown the CDU, with its policy of exclusion, into chaos," he added.

    While the parties may be struggling to work out their candidates for next year, Germany's current leader remains in favour.

    "The person in charge of this country is still Angela Merkel," said Dominic Kane.

    "She is, by far and away, the most popular politician in this country, and so far, shows no sign of going any earlier than she absolutely has to, which is at the end of this parliament, at the end of next summer."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies