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Merkel's failed succession plan sets Germany adrift in 2020 and beyond

Merkel's failed succession plan sets Germany adrift in 2020 and beyond
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A tremor shook German politics on Monday, with effects that will reach well beyond the country’s borders. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s presumptive heir, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, announced that she would step down from the chairmanship of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and will not be the party’s chancellor candidate in the Bundestag election scheduled for late 2021.

Her resignation was sparked by a failure to control a regional party organization flirting with forms of cooperation with the far right, but doubts about her leadership have grown since she won the chairmanship in December 2018. The election of a new successor will preoccupy the main governing party at a time when stronger German leadership is needed to confront critical challenges in Europe, across the Atlantic, and in global politics. It will stifle for as long as Merkel remains chancellor the growing momentum within the CDU to implement new policies on issues like defense or geoeconomic competition with China. After Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation, what is arguably Europe’s most important country is likely to experience another half-year or more of drift — which Germany, its European partners, and its American ally can ill afford.

The tectonic shift that shook Kramp-Karrenbauer loose is the strength of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in eastern Germany, where the party draws support of between 20 and 25 percent of the population (the AfD has plateaued in western Germany at around 10 percent). Combined with the strength of the post-Communist Die Linke party, or the Left, in the former German Democratic Republic, the ability of mainstream parties to form governments in the east is severely constrained; in Thuringia most recently, the local CDU organization broke a post-war taboo by entering into a tacit voting arrangement with the AfD, unleashing outrage. 

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Kramp-Karrenbauer struggled to bring the Thuringia CDU into line. Perhaps another leader would have done better, but the arithmetic is hard to escape and will plague her successor: the CDU has ruled out working with either Die Linke or the AfD, leaving no options for a stable majority in Thuringia.

Kramp-Karrenbauer had a remarkable 24-month rise from a little-known regional leader to the chairmanship of Europe’s most successful political party. Her tenure as CDU leader (and since last summer also as Defense minister, a role she will retain) stood out for its honest attempts at fresh thinking on modern conservatism and Germany’s role in the world.

She initiated a nationwide consultative process to help define the new CDU platform, and was refreshingly more willing than Merkel to address contentious issues such as migration. As Defense minister, she focused uncharacteristically publicly for a German politician on the country’s national security interests — a rhetorical shift in a political system that 75 years after Nazi conquest and crimes still has trouble discussing power and strategy. 

Kramp-Karrenbauer fought to prolong the Bundeswehr’s mission training Iraqi security forces, and dared to suggest a German military role as part of an international presence in Syria, drawing criticism but shifting the terms of the public debate. There were also rumors she might put the U.S.-made F-35 back into the running to replace Germany’s aging Tornado fighter aircraft.

While she will bring her strong transatlantic sensibility to the remainder of her term as Defense minister, it will be harder for Kramp-Karrenbauer to push German policy in new directions now that she is no longer a chancellor-in-waiting.

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Germany faces major challenges in the coming months: a wrenching decision on whether to exclude Huawei and other suspect suppliers from participating in Germany’s 5G network; forging a European partnership with the United Kingdom on security and foreign policy after Brexit; addressing the growing political and economic competition with China; and shaping the European Union agenda in the EU’s presidency in the second half of 2020. In all these matters, Germany’s role as the EU’s largest and wealthiest country is crucial; there is no option to hit the world’s pause button.

Merkel tried to manage her own succession — a feat with no real precedent in German politics, where leadership change usually comes after a lost election. A failed transition will be her responsibility as much as her ultimate successor’s.

Jeff Rathke is president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at John Hopkins University.