Merkel to step down as CDU leader, marking end of an era

Germany's Angela Merkel announced that she will not seek re-election as chancellor, ending a 13-year era at the center of European politics and firing the starting pistol on the race to succeed her.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led her party for 18 years and the country for 13, said her decision to relinquish chairmanship of the CDU was aimed at giving her party the opportunity "to get ready for the time after me".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led her party for 18 years and the country for 13, said her decision to relinquish chairmanship of the CDU was aimed at giving her party the opportunity "to get ready for the time after me".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

German Chancellor also says she will not seek re-election in 2021, fuelling discussion on successor

Dr Angela Merkel's decision to relinquish the chairmanship of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) marks the end of an era.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, after a meeting of her party leadership, the German Chancellor also announced she will not run again for the country's top post in 2021.

Dr Merkel, 64, who has led the party for 18 years and the country for 13, said her decision was aimed at giving her party the opportunity "to get ready for the time after me". She also said she would not seek any other political office.

Traditionally, the CDU chairman becomes chancellor when the party rules in Berlin. The elections at the party convention in Hamburg in early December will therefore be a precursor of who might be shaping German politics after Dr Merkel.

A number of names were already floating in political circles in the German capital yesterday about who that might be, and not all of them were to Dr Merkel's liking.

They include two arch conservatives, Mr Jens Spahn, 38, the Minister of Health and seen by many as the "anti-Merkel", and Mr Friedrich Merz, 62, the former head of the CDU fraction in the German Parliament. Ms Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, general secretary of the party and a loyal Merkel confederate, no doubt will also throw her hat into the ring.

If, in fact, one of the more conservative candidates wins the party polls, life for Chancellor Merkel could become extremely difficult. Mr Merz, for instance, was rather rudely pushed out of his high-level party position by her early in the new millennium. A political "cohabitation" arrangement with Mr Merz as CDU party chief and Dr Merkel as chancellor is hardly conceivable.

The political turmoil in Germany was triggered by the outcome of the elections in the state of Hesse on Sunday. The CDU did poorly in the polls but managed to retain the prime ministership of the state.

Dr Merkel was criticised by her own party elders after the dismal polls result. The most stinging criticism probably came from Hesse's Prime Minister and her close ally, Mr Volker Bouffier of the CDU, who saw his party lose 11 per cent of the vote even though his government with the Greens got high marks.

On election night, Mr Bouffier loudly complained that the poor performance of the ruling coalition in Berlin had turned his campaign into an uphill battle. He pointedly blamed the federal party leadership, saying it was time to confront critical questions, a remark many construed as directly aimed at Dr Merkel.

In fact, her reputation has taken a beating since the migration crisis set in three years ago. Her decision in September 2015 to open the doors to refugees was highly controversial, applauded by some but derided by others. She was praised for behaving in a compassionate and Christian manner, unlike many of her colleagues in the European Union.

But many Germans chafed at the fact that over one million refugees - mostly from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq - had entered their country. The migration crisis provided the burst of tailwind that led to the rise of right-wing party Alternative for Germany, a populist movement that only three years ago was in decline. Dr Merkel continues to struggle to properly address the concerns of many Germans on the issue.

But she made it one of the central planks of her campaign for re-election last year, feeling, perhaps rightly, that the project of integration was not finished and she did not want to leave the stage before this mission was accomplished. However, the many fights within her ruling coalition, mainly with the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, portrayed the government as deeply divided and estranged.

"The picture the government is sending out is not acceptable," Dr Merkel said yesterday. The election results in Hesse, she acknowledged, were a "clear signal that things can't go on as they are".

By stepping down as CDU chairman, Dr Merkel is doing exactly what her predecessor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroder, did in 2004.

Mr Schroder, while pushing through a controversial reform of labour laws, had to cope with a major loss of popularity. By separating the chancellorship and party chairmanship, he was hoping to ignite renewed support. Dr Merkel, then leader of the opposition, spoke of a "loss of authority all along the line", and "the beginning of the end" of Mr Schroder.

Less than two years later, he had lost another major regional election and finally the chancellorship, paving the way for Dr Merkel to assume the office.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2018, with the headline 'Merkel to step down as CDU leader, marking end of an era'. Print Edition | Subscribe