Why Angela Merkel’s Succession Plan Failed

The German chancellor’s anointed successor says she will no longer seek the country’s top position. Berlin now faces months of political uncertainty.

Angela Merkel and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
German Chancellor and former leader of the German Christian Democrats Angela Merkel and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of the Christian Democrats, in Leipzig, Germany, on Nov. 23, 2019. Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

The succession plan German Chancellor Angela Merkel carefully set into motion one year ago collapsed Monday when her preferred replacement, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, abruptly announced she would resign as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. The only remaining certainty in German politics is that Merkel isn’t running for reelection. Everything else—the date of the next election, the platforms of the major parties, the candidates themselves—has been subsumed into the general confusion of Merkel’s extended lame duck reign. Here’s a brief rundown of how Europe’s most powerful country ended up here—and where it may be heading next.

Who is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer?

Kramp-Karrenbauer has been a minor player in national German politics for most of her career. That was still the case during the refugee crisis of 2015, when Merkel famously responded to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern migrants on Germany’s doorstep with a temporary open-door policy. That decision opened up new divisions over migration in German politics—and within Merkel’s own center-right CDU party. By 2018, those internal divisions had become impossible for the chancellor to tame on her own, and Kramp-Karrenbauer became her solution for managing her exit while securing her legacy.

Kramp-Karrenbauer was governor of the small western German state of Saarland when Merkel tapped her to serve as deputy party leader in Berlin. That provided sufficient runway for Kramp-Karrenbauer to successfully run for party leader less than a year later. (Merkel then appointed her to her cabinet as defense minister in 2019.) Kramp-Karrenbauer’s pitch to CDU party members was that she would heal the divisions within the party without ditching Merkel’s broadly popular political agenda, balancing between ideology and pragmatism in a way that would satisfy the base without turning off German voters more broadly. Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer seemed to share an ultimate goal: elevating the latter to the chancellery seat eventually vacated by the former.

What triggered her resignation?

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation on Monday culminated what had been a catastrophic week. Last Wednesday, in the eastern German state of Thuringia, the CDU broke a postwar taboo by cooperating with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to elevate a new regional governor. The decision to participate in that selection, which triggered outrage across the country, was made by the CDU’s regional branch—in defiance of Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had expressly recommended against it. The insubordination continued in the days afterward, as Kramp-Karrenbauer demanded new elections in the state, while local party leaders refused to accede. Lacking the authority to enforce red lines within her own party, she had little choice but to resign. She will remain defense minister.

How did things get to that point?

Although her end came suddenly, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s authority began dwindling from the moment she became party leader. That was partly due to avoidable personal missteps. More than once, she had to backtrack on public comments—whether on transgender rights or fake news—that were widely interpreted as more inflammatory than she intended. She also failed to deliver on promises to her party’s economically conservative wing.

More fundamentally, however, she failed to develop an effective strategy for her central ambition: resolving her party’s division over migration. It was not for lack of trying. Over and again, she tried to mediate between her party’s culturally conservative factions and its liberal wing. These efforts had the opposite of their intended effect, with both the far-right and the multiculturalist Greens enjoying rising poll numbers—thus producing deeper grumbling within her own party, especially in eastern Germany, where the AfD’s insurgency has threatened to depose the CDU as the largest force on the right. Still unclear is whether any strategy can succeed where Kramp-Karrenbauer failed.

Who are the other options to take over leadership of the CDU?

Kramp-Karrenbauer had several rivals within the party ranks who will presumably soon begin competing with one another to succeed her. The most prominent is Friedrich Merz, who positioned himself as a more conservative alternative to Kramp-Karrenbauer in last year’s intraparty primary and only narrowly lost to her in a runoff vote. Where she promised to mediate between the party’s—and the country’s—increasingly unruly factions, Merz signaled that the only way forward would be to embrace a principled identity on questions of economic policy and cultural politics, even at the expense of polarization.

The candidate most widely expected to fill the CDU’s moderate lane is Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. The 39-year-old Jens Spahn, Merkel’s health minister, is the youngest of the top candidates and may offer a message of generational change that could prove appealing. Although popular among conservatives, he has also distinguished himself among the broader public as one of the most competent and energetic ministers in a government that has otherwise mostly been marked by malaise.

In any case, the CDU is likely in for a long wait—a party conference to select the new leader may not happen until December.

How will all this affect Merkel?

On the most basic level, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation may accelerate Merkel’s departure from office. The lack of authority Kramp-Karrenbauer suffered from was partly a reflection of the objective reality that she didn’t have ultimate control over government policy. Any successor is unlikely to want to be in a similar position. (Any attempt to depose her ahead of schedule would almost certainly cause the collapse of the ruling coalition with Social Democrats, thus triggering early elections.)

More broadly, however, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s failure is likely to trigger a reassessment of Merkel’s legacy. Nobody can doubt the basic facts of Merkel’s extraordinary run atop German politics. But a growing number of Germans are questioning why her personal successes no longer translate (if they ever did) to the institutions she’s been a part of, beginning with her own party. Kramp-Karrenbauer ran for the party leadership promising tactical changes in response to changing circumstances in the country. Merz, however, blamed Merkel’s entire theory of leadership: The chancellor’s strategy of avoiding conflict and controversy on issues ranging from public spending to cultural change, Merz argues, had the effect of repressing political desires that eventually reemerged in the form of the reactionary far-right AfD.

It’s clear the CDU has grown tired of Merkel’s leadership. The question now is whether that will result in the party pursuing an entirely new political direction.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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