The Potential Leaders of the Post-Merkel Era

Leon Kohl is a graduate student in EU Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The German Social Democrats’ ratification of the coalition agreement with the Christian Democrats paved the way for Angela Merkel’s fourth term in office. Her time as chancellor has overlapped with four British prime ministers and four Taoisigh. However, her conservative CDU’s poor performance in the September general elections and the length of coalition negotiations have weakened her authority, leading to calls for her to initiate a hand-over of power. There is a consensus that ‘Merkeldämmerung’ – the twilight of the Merkel era – has begun and discussions over her succession are underway.

Merkel has been facing unrest within her party following substantial concessions to her Social Democrat coalition partner in coalition negotiations. Reacting to intra-party pressure to promote potential successors and rejuvenate the party, the German chancellor included a few new, ambitious politicians in her party’s cabinet line-up, thus quelling a party rebellion among her CDU’s right wing.

Merkel’s party’s conservative branch has blamed her centrist course and ‘open-door’ refugee policy for the rise of the far-right AfD. The coalition deal was criticised for ceding key ministries to the Social Democrats, including the crucial finance ministry, previously held by fiscally conservative hawk Wolfgang Schäuble.

Although Merkel succeeded in reaching a deal which secures her fourth term, she has been viewed by many as the loser of the negotiations. Calls for rejuvenating the party and for Merkel to hand over the party chairmanship to groom a potential successor have mounted. She acknowledged that her party had “certainly paid a price as Christian Democrats for a stable government”. Despite speculation that Merkel will step down before the end of the four-year term, she has insisted she would serve a full term as chancellor and party leader but promised to “start with a new team”.
Merkel, who reportedly had to be convinced to run for a fourth term, is all too aware that her conservative critics are preparing for the post-Merkel era. Although she and her allies are still too powerful for any potential competitors to topple her, it is generally accepted that Merkel’s nomination of a new generation of politicians to the cabinet heralds the beginning of the end of the Merkel era. “It is clear to everyone that the chancellor is going into a last term,” Merkel ally and German EU budget commissioner Günther Oettinger told Deutschlandfunk radio, adding that he was confident that Merkel would “skilfully set in motion the succession in these four years”.

Here are some of the possible contenders to succeed the Iron Chancellor:

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer: Merkel 2.0

Until recently, 55-year-old Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was not well known by large parts of the German public. However, after it was reported that she was Merkel’s preferred successor, the regional prime minister of the small south-western state of Saarland with a population of just about a million has been able to raise her national profile. Last week, she was elected the CDU party’s general secretary, the position Merkel had held before she took over the party leadership, with a party record 98.9 per cent of the party congress vote.

Merkel’s support for the woman with the tongue-twisting name should not come as a surprise given Kramp-Karrenbauer’s pragmatic, calm and consensual leadership style, which very much resembles Merkel’s approach to politics. Merkel is said to hope that Kramp-Karrenbauer will defend her political legacy and not roll back on reforms which have made her party more successful among female, young and urban voters. In fact, after Merkel nominated her as general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, often only referred to as AKK, rejected calls for the party to shift to the right. She is unpretentious, and Merkel is said to value her reflected and matter-of-fact leadership.

Despite being a loyal Merkel supporter, Kramp-Karrenbauer has not hesitated from cutting her own path. In 2012, she ignored Merkel’s advice not to call a snap election and managed to increase her majority. Last year, she celebrated a sensational comeback when reelected as Saarland’s prime minister with more than 40 per cent after polls before the election had suggested that her Social Democrat competitors would take over the state government.

Kramp-Karrenbauer is very popular within the CDU party. She topped the poll in a December 2017 survey of CDU party members on Merkel’s succession. 45% of party members considered her to be qualified to take over the reins from Merkel. Moreover, several CDU state premiers are said to be supportive of her.

A fluent French speaker, she is left-leaning on labour and social issues but, as a devout Catholic and mother of three, she is also able to appeal to the party’s conservative and traditionalist base. ‘AKK’ has been supportive of Merkel’s refugee policy in 2015 but has taken a tough line on age assessment of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum and deportation of asylum seekers whose application had been rejected. She was opposed to same-sex marriage and caused controversy in 2015 when she equated gay marriage with incest.

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s decision to leave state politics and take on the role of secretary general surely puts her in the pole position to succeed Merkel. Moreover, Der Spiegel has reported of rumours that Merkel’s current chief of staff Peter Altmaier, who is also from Saarland and will be Germany’s new economy minister, could move to Brussels after the 2019 European Parliament elections and become Germany’s new European Commissioner. Kramp-Karrenbauer could then join the cabinet to replace Altmaier.

Jens Spahn: The cultural conservative

Since Merkel values Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s unpretentiousness and pragmatism, it is no secret that Jens Spahn’s inclination to polarise and seek the limelight does not go down well with the more reserved and prudential chancellor. The highly ambitious 37-year-old deputy finance minister, who entered the German parliament aged 22, has been one of Merkel’s most vocal intra-party critics.

A frequent guest on political TV shows, Spahn has skilfully exploited his high media profile to position himself as the frontrunner of the party’s right wing, which has objected to Merkel’s shift to the centre. Although he has defended Merkel’s changes to core conservative policies such as the suspension of military service, he has been openly critical of Merkel’s refugee policy and one of the most outspoken CDU politicians demanding a tougher stance on immigration. The rhetorically gifted and openly gay conservative is a self-described ‘burkaphobe‘, tries to portray himself as a defender of Western liberalism against intolerant forms of Islam and has emphasised his close ties to conservative Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz who was elected on an anti-immigration platform last year. A proponent of an economically liberal course, he does not flinch from making controversial and sometimes unpopular demands such as raising the retirement age.

Although the party’s right wing views him as a walking contradiction, they think Spahn is the ideal candidate to manage the balancing act of making the party more youthful and dynamic and at the same time reconnecting with voters which the CDU had lost to the far-right AfD.

As he had been seen by many as a potential candidate to succeed Wolfgang Schäuble as finance minister, it is not surprising that he lamented that ceding the finance ministry to the Social Democrats was a “hard blow” that “hurt” the party. Merkel was said to be apprehensive of promoting Spahn to a more senior position and Spahn was not included in Merkel’s initial reported line-up.

However, after sustained criticism by the party’s right-wing and youth branch, Merkel offered Spahn the position of health minister, a brief he had worked in for six years as the CDU’s health spokesman. By promoting Spahn to a senior cabinet position, Merkel was able to placate her party’s conservative wing and might be able to silence her most outspoken critic, as he will be subject to cabinet responsibility. Moreover, while heading the health ministry will allow Spahn to raise his national profile, the office seems to be inherently unpopular with the electorate, thus potentially weakening Spahn’s prospects to succeed the Chancellor.

Ursula von der Leyen: The liberal supermum

Merkel’s nickname ‘Mutti’ (‘mummy’) would take on a very different meaning if defence minister Ursula von der Leyen succeeded her. A mother of seven, von der Leyen is a close confidant of Merkel’s and had long been viewed as the most likely candidate to take over the reins from Merkel.

Having served in the cabinet since 2005, first as Minister for Family Affairs, then as Minister for Labour and Social Affairs and currently as Germany’s first female defence minister, she is by far the most experienced of all potential successors.

A proponent of a more assertive German foreign policy, she engineered arms deliveries to the Iraqi Kurds to assist them in their fight against so-called Islamic State. Von der Leyen grew up in Brussels and is a firm supporter of a United States of Europe and a European army.

Notwithstanding opposition from her party’s conservative wing, during her time as Minister for Family Affairs, she invested in expanding childcare structures and introduced a parental leave system that allows both mothers and fathers to take time off to care for their families.

Von der Leyen is very ambitious but has learnt to present herself as more modest. When asked about Merkel’s succession, she likes to highlight that “in every generation there is a chancelloress, a chancellor. In my generation that is Angela Merkel.”

When she was promoted to the defence ministry in 2013, many observers thought she would use her new position as a springboard to the chancellorship. However, her unconventional approach to the German armed forces and her sometimes clumsy reaction to Bundeswehr scandals have not made her very popular among army personnel and alienated the party’s conservative wing.

She is considered to be even more liberal than Merkel; for instance, last year, she voted for gay marriage. In 2013, she attempted to gain a parliamentary majority for the introduction of quotas for women in high-level executive positions without consulting Merkel, a move that undermined von der Leyen’s support among the party’s rank and file. This became apparent at the 2016 CDU party congress at which she was re-elected with the worst result of the party’s vice-chairs. A poll found that only 31 per cent of party members consider her to be qualified to succeed Merkel, compared to 45 per cent for Kramp-Karrenbauer and 36 per cent for Spahn.

As she is considered to be antithesis to a return to the CDU’s conservative roots, her candidacy would be firmly opposed by the party’s right wing. However, if the grand coalition with the SPD collapses early triggering new elections and Merkel decides not to run again, von der Leyen might be best placed to lead the CDU into new elections as Spahn lacks experience and Kramp-Karrenbauer might not have had time to significantly raise her national profile.

Julia Klöckner: From “wine queen” to crown princess?

In the spring of 2016, media outlets around the world portrayed Julia Klöckner as Merkel’s heir apparent. Leading in polls by up to ten per cent, the studied theologian and former German “wine queen” – the German wine industry’s representative elected at a beauty pageant – looked set to win the premiership in the south-western state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Having narrowly lost to former SPD national leader and incumbent state premier Kurt Beck in the 2011 Rhineland-Palatinate election, victory in the 2016 election was considered to hurl the charismatic 45-year-old Merkel confidant’s career forward and make her a prime candidate to succeed the chancellor. However, after siding with critics of Merkel’s refugee policy during the election campaign, she lost to her Social Democrat competitor.

Klöckner is very ambitious and good at rubbing shoulders with the party base but she sometimes comes across as brash. By trying to portray herself as a modern conservative, she hopes to win back alienated voters who traditionally backed the CDU while maintaining the CDU’s strength among centrist voters. She has called for legally enforced quota for women in publicly traded companies but at the same time opposes abortion and assisted suicide. She has criticised the left for what she considers to be a misconstrued defence of illiberal views among Muslims. She has also been a vocal proponent of more police funding and a balanced budget.

Klöckner is very popular within her party and at the 2016 party congress was re-elected with the best result of all CDU vice-chairs. She will take over the federal ministry of agriculture, in which she had served as parliamentary undersecretary from 2009 to 2011. Despite her popularity and her good relationship with Merkel, her chances of succeeding Merkel should not be overstated as intra-party competitors will be quick to point out that, unlike Kramp-Karrenbauer, Klöckner failed to win two successive elections.