Christian Democratic Union (CDU) members will meet for a national party convention on December 7 and 8 in Hamburg, Germany where one thousand delegates will vote for leader Angela Merkel’s replacement. In October, Chancellor Merkel announced she would be stepping down as party leader but continue as Chancellor for the remainder of her term, to 2021. It is doubtful she will actually complete her term once a new leader is elected since this would cause friction between competing leaders of the governing party and government.
Chancellor Merkel has led the CDU for eighteen years, since 2000, and been Chancellor since 2005. She is considered the European Union’s (E.U.) most powerful leader as Germany is the most powerful country in the organization. She moved the CDU politically to the center by dropping military conscription, accelerating Germany's exit from nuclear energy, introducing benefits encouraging fathers to look after their young children, and allowing the introduction of gay marriage. Controversially, however, was her unilateral decision to accept more than one million asylum seekers since 2014, which has increasingly been publicly unpopular over time.
CDU is Germany’s largest political party and at its peak in 2013 had over 40 percent of the country’s support. Now, the party hovers around 28 percent popularity after two state elections where the CDU lost seats in their regional stronghold. In the September 2017 general election, the center-right CDU was forced to create a coalition government with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who fare even worse in the polls. Many within the CDU cite the migrant crisis among Chancellor Merkel’s decisions that have turned the public away from the party and believe a return to some more conservative elements will reverse their electoral losses.
The three frontrunners to replace Ms. Merkel as leader:
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56
As the CDU's General Secretary since February, Kramp-Karrenbauer is a centrist and considered to be a Merkel loyalist who will replicate much of the Chancellor's style and policy. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer was previously interior minister and governor of the western Saarland state. She uses more conservative rhetoric than Ms. Merkel and vocally opposed gay marriage. She has talked tough on immigration issues and proposed a lifelong entry ban to Europe for asylum-seekers convicted of serious crimes. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has an unpretentious style and a reputation for calm analysis as well as political acumen. While she is popular in Saarland and Berlin, the CDU’s strength has always been in the southwest region of Bavaria.
Friedrich Merz, 63
Mr. Merz is a successful businessman and corporate lawyer who was leader of the CDU prior to Ms. Merkel and a former Member of the European Parliament and Member of the German Bundestag. He left politics in 2009 when Ms. Merkel pushed her potential rival out. Mr. Merz appeals to the more conservative and business-minded wing of the party and has the official backing of ex-finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. In the private sector, he was recently head of the supervisory board in the German branch of investment manager BlackRock. Mr. Merz is well-connected in the party and has presented his time away from politics as a virtue, saying that he has "had the opportunity ... to look from outside at politics and its decisions." He has previously advocated for tax reform and argued that foreigners should learn German ‘Leitkultur,’ translated as "majority culture". He has criticized the "unregulated influx" of migrants and blamed the CDU for accepting the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany, which entered the national parliament last year, "with a shrug of the shoulders."
Jens Spahn, 38
Health Minister Mr. Spahn is a former banker and a Merkel critic, who was formerly Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Finance under Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. He is Catholic, gay, and popular in the party. Mr. Spahn has focused on migration, calling it the "elephant in the room”. He said security is a key issue, arguing that "not everything is good again" despite the slowing influx of migrants. Mr. Spahn said the CDU doesn't need to "shift to the right," but it does need to start "a real change of generations."