How Angela Merkel’s succession plan unravelled

The faltering performance of Merkel’s heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has dramatically reopened the race to become German chancellor. 

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For German Christian Democrat leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, once regarded as Angela Merkel’s natural successor as chancellor, recent weeks have been politically enfeebling.

As the European parliament election results were announced on Sunday night (26 May), it became clear that the Christian Democrats (CDU) had endured their worst-ever nationwide performance (winning just 28.9 per cent of the vote).

The consolation for the 56-year-old Kramp-Karrenbauer (known in Germany as AKK) was that the rival Social Democrats (SPD) had fared yet worse. Their vote share of 15.8 per cent left them in third place behind the Greens, who surged to 20.5 per cent. Added to this, the CDU defeated the SPD in Bremen, the city state the centre-left party had governed for over 70 years.

Yet, incredibly, AKK has since managed to divert attention away from the CDU’s hapless coalition partners. The party leader repeated her misguided attack on a group of 70 YouTube influencers who urged young voters not to support the ruling parties. On Monday (27 May) she sharply criticised their campaign and spoke of the need for new rules to govern the online sphere, leading to accusations that she was infringing freedom of speech.

While AKK’s comments may have been misinterpreted, her decision to refuel the controversy demonstrated remarkable political ineptitude. It’s a trap the sphinx-like Merkel would never have fallen into.

It’s not AKK’s first gaffe: a joke about transgender people during a stand-up routine at a festival alienated party moderates. Her approval ratings have notably plummeted since her narrow election victory as CDU leader in December (ending Merkel’s 18-year reign). The more Germans see of AKK, it appears, the less they like her. But it’s the party leader’s wider political strategy that could cause her greater problems.

AKK’s move to push the CDU to the right in order to take on the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has merely opened up the centre ground, which Merkel always sought to occupy, allowing the Greens to rush in.

In the European elections, the CDU lost four times as many votes to the Greens as to the AfD. A stunning 1.2 million voters switched from the conservatives to the environmentalist party, almost as many as the 1.5 million who deserted the SPD. Meanwhile, in eastern Germany, the CDU’s attempt to court AfD voters failed, with the far-right party finishing first in Saxony and Brandenburg, both of which hold state elections in September.

While the CDU can forgive missteps such as the YouTube controversy, electoral losses are far more serious. Merkel’s centrist trajectory may have been highly unpopular with many sections of the party, but her repeated election victories (she has retained office for 14 years) made her position almost unassailable.

Merkel is thought to be increasingly unhappy with her protégé. On Tuesday (28 May), Bloomberg, citing two unnamed German officials, reported that the chancellor had lost faith in AKK’s ability to take on the role and was increasingly determined to remain in office until 2021.

At an EU summit on Tuesday evening, however, Merkel described such reports as “nonsense”. Furthermore, Merkel has always suggested that she intends to serve out this legislative period. After that, it’s ultimately up to the party to decide on its candidate for chancellor, not Merkel.

More significantly, perhaps, AKK’s internal rivals were already manoeuvring against her. Armin Laschet, the influential CDU leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, pointedly defended press freedom on Tuesday. And Friedrich Merz, an old rival of Merkel’s, who AKK narrowly defeated in the leadership contest, denounced both women over their climate policies in comments to Der Spiegel. If Merz, who is popular with the economically liberal wing of the party, were to oust AKK, it is inconceivable that Merkel could stay on as chancellor.

Meanwhile, the increasingly fragile grand coalition — between the CDU and the SPD — could still fall apart. The SPD is reeling from its electoral humiliation and its leader Andrea Nahles is fighting for survival. Many on the SPD left now argue the only way to revive the party is by exiting the grand coalition when it is reviewed this autumn.

Yet the SPD’s departure from government could further marginalise them, leaving the Greens to take over as Germany’s main progressive force. The Greens, says Carsten Nickel of political risk firm Teneo, are benefiting from a realignment across Europe as traditional left/right divides are replaced by ones between liberal progressives and conservative nationalists.

They have also managed to address young people’s environmental concerns — a remarkable 36 per cent of first-time voters backed them — while exploiting wider dissatisfaction with the government, despite historically low unemployment (5 per cent) and a relatively robust economy.

The Greens’ charismatic co-leader, 49-year-old Robert Habeck, is increasingly spoken of as a potential chancellor, either in coalition with the SPD and the Left Party or, perhaps more likely, in a CDU-Green coalition. Yet here too, AKK has demonstrated a lack of political prowess, firmly rejecting many climate protection proposals and failing to take the school strike movement (Friday for Futures) seriously.

Her political mishaps mean she will likely face the wrath of her party at a CDU gathering this weekend. Ironically, she called the meeting, without first notifying Merkel, in what was regarded as an unsuccessful attempt to push the chancellor to step down.

Yet it is Merkel, still highly popular among German voters, who holds the advantage ahead of the conference. Relatively untainted by the EU election results, she has played the role of global stateswoman this week, delivering a speech at Harvard University, giving a lengthy interview on CNN and sparring with French president Emmanuel Macron over the top EU jobs at a Brussels summit.

Meanwhile, if AKK survives the coming weeks, her next electoral test will soon be upon her, with two state elections in September. Should the CDU and the SPD perform poorly, the grand coalition could crumble and AKK would likely never lead the CDU into another election. That would mean the question of who succeeds Merkel — and leads Europe’s largest country — would once again be wide open.

Siobhán Dowling is a Berlin-based journalist who has written for publications including Spiegel International, the New York Times and the Guardian