Germany was plunged into political crisis this week when members of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – a conservative party that has governed and shaped the country in 50 out of the past 70 years – defied a party ban on cooperating with the rightwing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), siding with them to elect a state leader in the small eastern state of Thuringia.
The shock move highlighted the inability of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU’s leader, to impose discipline.
It also laid bare the deep shifts in German politics, as well as emphasising the divisions within the CDU over whether it should continue on the centrist course of its previous leader and current chancellor, Angela Merkel, or embrace a more vigorous conservatism in the hope of winning back some of the millions of voters it has lost to the AfD.
Who is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer?
The 57-year-old was supposed to be the vehicle by which Merkel could elegantly slip out of office. She would not only take over the reins of the CDU and, by extension, be the party’s lead candidate for the chancellery, but would preserve her legacy, hence her nickname of “mini-Merkel”. At least that is what Merkel – who is serving her final term in office – had hoped. Kramp-Karrenbauer was a relatively low-key political figure when she was narrowly elected into the post of CDU leader in December 2018, having previously served as the party’s deputy leader for less than a year. Prior to that, she had governed the small western German state of Saarland.
Was she popular?
German voters were never in favour of Kramp-Karrenbauer becoming chancellor and she had a rocky ride from the start, suffering a string of embarrassing gaffes – including a joke about gender-neutral toilets – and comments on fake news, on which she was forced to backtrack. More significantly, she failed to unite the party on its trickiest topic: migration. Divisions had been opened up by Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees in late 2015, which led to the arrival of almost a million newcomers and fuelled the rise of the AfD. As the party rowed, it lost increasing numbers of voters to both the Greens and the AfD, whose rise in eastern Germany in particular has threatened to topple the CDU as the largest conservative force.
Why was she forced to step down?
Kramp-Karrenbauer said she did not have the full backing of the party, and that was borne out by events in Thuringia, where she had expressly ordered the CDU’s delegates not to cooperate with the AfD but they did so anyway. The fallout continued when Kramp-Karrenbauer called for new elections to take place in the state but was ignored by local party leaders. She had little choice but to resign. Her rivals within the party, who made it clear they would not support her, are expected to run against her for the office.
Is Merkel still in charge?
She is still the chancellor and so remains the most powerful politician in Germany. But the fact that her succession plans have badly failed means that in her remaining months in office she increasingly resembles a lame duck. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation may speed up Merkel’s departure, because she is seen at least in part to blame for the debacle: with Merkel still in office, Kramp-Karrenbauer inevitably lacked authority not least because she didn’t have the final say on government policy. But the Social Democrats, the junior partners in the grand coalition government, have said they will resign if Merkel is ousted ahead of schedule, which would most likely lead to early elections, so she is expected to stay in place until elections in 2021.
Who will replace Kramp-Karrenbauer now?
There are three main contenders for the job. One is Friedrich Merz, a prominent CDU member who in December 2018 campaigned on a ticket of shifting the party more to the right, and narrowly lost to Kramp-Karrenbauer. He has blamed Merkel for creating a culture in which conflict is avoided, which has led to a repression of political aspirations on which the AfD have seized. In a poll, about 13% of Germans said they could imagine him as chancellor.
Jens Spahn, the health minister, came third in the December 2018 contest. At 39, the youngest candidate by some way, he has previously been a staunch critic of Merkel’s refugee policy. The same poll showed he would have only 4.7% of support.
Armin Laschet is the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and the candidate most likely to continue Merkel’s more moderate path. Unlike the other two, he has yet to state his intentions.
What would happen if there was a general election tomorrow?
The latest polls compiled by Statista show the CDU would top polling with 27-29%, the SPD would receive 13 or 14% and the Greens 20-24%. The AfD would get 10-15%, Die Linke 6-9% and the pro-business FDP 6-9%. This would mean the grand coalition could only continue as a minority government. One of several possibilities would be a so-called Jamaica coalition between the CDU, and Greens and FDP, though talks for that collapsed in 2017 and the option would be relatively unattractive for the Greens.