Merkel’s CDU party in disarray as protegee drops out of election race

Snap party elections touted as party chair nicknamed ‘mini-Merkel’ withdraws over far-right humiliation

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, outgoing leader of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), speaks during a news conference after a board meeting at the party’s headquarters in Berlin, Germany, February 10, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
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Jitters over the disintegration of Europe's political establishment spread to Germany on Monday after the woman in line to become Germany’s next chancellor withdrew her name from contention to succeed Angela Merkel.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer admitted the question over who will run for the top job is weakening the governing Christian Democrats (CDU) and left the party with a dilemma of how to defend its leading role in German politics from the rise of far-right and radical parties.

She also told fellow CDU leaders she would give up the party chair, leaving Germany’s main governing party rudderless and facing the prospect of a succession struggle.

Widely known by her initials AKK, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer has struggled to stamp her authority on the party since taking over from Ms Merkel in December 2018 and was humiliated last week when a local chapter in eastern Germany defied her orders and threw its lot in with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Even before the Thuringia debacle, critics had long argued Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, had not lived up to expectations.

"She acted and manoeuvred in such clumsy ways that she must have realised herself: this can't go on," Der Tagesspiegel said.

Hand-picked by the chancellor to safeguard her legacy, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer held off a challenger from a more conservative faction within the CDU who wanted more support for business and less emphasis on the environment and social issues. Those demands are likely to return as the leadership race heats up.

The decision not to run for chancellor in the next federal election, due in October 2021, leaves a big question mark over Germany's future direction just as its economy, Europe's largest, flirts with recession and as the EU struggles to define itself after Brexit.

CDU officials said Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer would remain party chair until another candidate for chancellor has been found.

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 10:  Federal Minister of Defence and CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) arrive for a meeting of the CDU leadership at CDU headquarters shortly after the leader of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) announced she intends to step down as party leader and chancellor candidate on February 10, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Kramp-Karrenbauer's viability as party leader came into question after she was unable to steer the CDU in the state of Thuringia towards the federal party's directive following the recent election debacle there.  (Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer was hand-picked by Chancellor Angela Merkel to safeguard the German leader's legacy. Getty Images

Sigmar Gabriel, a former leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) and junior partner in Ms Merkel's ruling coalition, even warned of a snap federal election as the two main parties - the conservatives and the SPD - try and fail to unite their different factions.

"I expect it won't be long before there are new elections," Mr Gabriel told the German newspaper Bild.

Chancellor Merkel, who last week led pressure to reverse appointment in Thuringia, has said she regrets her protegee’s decision.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer wants to remain as Germany's defence minister but the now broken line of succession has threatened the fragile governing coalition.

Michael Roth, a senior SPD member, said Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s withdrawal means “it is even more uncertain whether decent democrats will stand together across party lines in the fight for democracy and against nationalism”.

But the far-right AfD welcomed the move, with honorary chairman Alexander Gauland, saying the defence minister had failed to implement the CDU's policy of ostracising his party.

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

British MP Tom Tugendhat, speaking at a London-based think tank on Monday, said the implications of the AfD's influence on politics in Germany could not be overstated. He said shifts in German and European politics would have profound effects beyond the EU's borders, for countries like Britain.

"The questions in Thuringia are also important to us. Because they point to a rise in anti-European national sentiment and in various different ways it points to a very different European polity to the one we have been used to for thirty to forty years," he said.

As Chancellor, Angela Merkel has loomed large on the European stage since 2005. She played a central role in guiding the EU through the Eurozone crisis and opening Germany's doors to migrants fleeing war in the Middle East in 2015 - a move that still divides the bloc and her country.