Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats will choose her successor as party leader Friday — and whoever wins has a shot at one day becoming chancellor.
There are three candidates who stand a chance: A trusted ally of the chancellor whom some have dubbed “mini Merkel;” a former rival of Merkel who left politics about a decade ago for the corporate world; and a 38-year-old member of Merkel’s Cabinet who is also one of her most outspoken internal critics.
The winner will have to work closely with Merkel, who says she intends to remain chancellor until the end of her term in 2021, which could be challenging for someone who wants to distinguish themselves from her controversial leadership at a time when the party is polling near historic lows.
But the CDU’s choice will also have an impact on the country’s other parties, especially those that have profited from Merkel’s fall.
Here’s a look at each candidate and what they would mean for Germany:
CDU Secretary General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who formerly served as the first female regional leader of Saarland, has been dubbed “mini Merkel” because she’s widely perceived to be the chancellor’s top choice, and because the two have a similar demeanor and political style.
But she’s also sought to shake that nickname and distinguish herself from Merkel in recent weeks, declaring: “I’m 56 years old, I have three grown children, I have established a veritable carrier. There is nothing at all mini about me.”
Not only is she thought to be Merkel’s pick, but Kramp-Karrenbauer has consistently topped polls as the favorite to win among party voters as well as the general public. But it’s not the general public that gets to decide: 1,001 delegates representing regional party branches will be voting in a secret ballot Friday, thus the polls aren’t a true indicator.
What her win would mean for Merkel: Easy sailing. Though she’s recently tried to stress the “issues that separate” her from Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer has also refused to “create an artificial separation” between the two.
When Merkel does step down as chancellor, Kramp-Karrenbauer would also have a better chance of filling her shoes than rivals Friedrich Merz or Jens Spahn, according to poll by broadcaster N-tv and RTL: When pitted against either the Social Democrats’ Andrea Nahles or Olaf Scholz, respondents said they would prefer Kramp-Karrenbauer as chancellor.
What it would mean for other parties: While Kramp-Karrenbauer’s conservative views and strong opposition to gay marriage have received backlash from the Social Democrats, her relationship with the CDU’s center-left coalition partner would likely be similar to the one they now have with Merkel: somewhat fraught but functional.
Meanwhile, Kramp-Karrenbauer would “for sure” be the choice of the liberal Free Democratic Party, one MP told POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook. In Kramp-Karrenbauer, there wouldn’t be direct overlap with the FDP’s socially liberal and conservative economic stance. “She’s left wing on the economy and right wing in her views on the society. That’s a huge chance for us, exactly what we need.”
If the far-right Alternative for Germany has both Merkel and her mini-me to rally against, it could mean business as usual for their relatively steady polling figures.
Since he left politics in 2009, Merz has enjoyed a lucrative career as a corporate lawyer, working for a number of banks and financial firms, including BlackRock, the world’s largest investment group.
While polls have shown him coming in second to Kramp-Karrenbauer among the public, one survey by Bild am Sonntag showed he had an edge over her among delegates (though many contacted for the survey would not respond and some whom Bild reportedly contacted later questioned the results).
Merz also got a boost with the recent official endorsement of former finance minister and current Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, who told the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that “a majority for Merz would be the best for the country.”
What his win would mean for Merkel: Merz and Merkel have history. Now nicknamed the “anti-Merkel,” Merz formerly led the conservative bloc’s parliamentary group before being ousted by Merkel in 2002, and then became a critic of the chancellor. While Merz has said he is “confident” he could work with Merkel despite their past, he has also positioned himself as someone who could bring the party back to its more conservative roots and win former supporters back from the far right — music to the ears of those who feel Merkel’s liberal course contributed to their dramatic loss of support in recent votes.
In short, Merz as leader likely means more drama for Merkel.
What it would mean for other parties: Having Merz at the helm of the CDU could also spell more trouble for relations with the SPD, high-ranking members of which have already expressed fierce criticism of his ideas.
But Merz could also be the “ideal opponent” that the SPD needs to get a bump in the polls, as the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Heribert Prantl argued in a recent column: it would be easier for the party to position itself against a calculating businessman than against Kramp-Karrenbauer.
“It would be good for politics if the CDU again had a conservative face. The SPD and CDU could again go against each other, instead of being tied up in a grand coalition,” SPD lawmaker Matthias Miersch told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
If the SPD’s partnership with the conservatives did collapse, a potential snap election could work in the favor of the Greens. They won less than 9 percent in the 2017 general election, but have since had success in regional elections this year and are currently polling at around 18 percent nationally.
But working with Merz could prove more difficult for them. If they later attempted to form a coalition with the conservatives and liberal FDP — which Merkel tried and failed to do after last year’s election — they might feel like the third wheel as Merz’s business-friendly views are more in tune with the FDP.
But for the AfD, Merz’s comeback could be bad news. The party has in part managed its quick rise to become the country’s third largest party because of discontent with Merkel’s policies, in particular railing against her liberal migration stance. With her out of the picture, and with someone like Merz who has also questioned the country’s asylum policies, the far-right party could lose some of the CDU voters it won over.
The 38-year-old, openly gay health minister has been the most outspoken CDU member to criticize Merkel’s open door refugee policies.
Those following the polls may be inclined to rule Spahn out entirely: his support among CDU voters was even lower than it was among the general population in one survey, and another poll over the weekend didn’t even include him, saying it would only feature the “promising” candidates, Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz.
But, again, the polls don’t choose the winner, the delegates do. The winner needs to gain more than half the votes, so if there’s no clear majority in the first round, there will be a runoff, which leaves him at least with the role of a potential kingmaker.
What his win would mean for Merkel: Like Merz, also trouble. Spahn has already shown no reservations about speaking out against her.
What it would mean for other parties: Also similar to Merz, Spahn could make dealings with the SPD more difficult as he represents the more conservative wing of the party. But above all, Spahn’s candidacy means parties aren’t likely to see the end of him any time soon, even if he doesn’t win: Spahn is working to establish himself as the man of the future, a more modern face of conservatism, and ultimately appears now to be gunning for a better Cabinet position.
In a sign of how far ahead he’s thinking, Spahn told a recent regional CDU conference “I would like to take you to the future, to the year 2040,” describing technological challenges and what Germany should look like.
Whatever happens Friday, Spahn will remain a player. That’s less certain for the other two.