After Angela The Beginning of the Post-Merkel Era
Angela Merkel's recent announcement that she would step down as the chair of the Christian Democratic Union has opened up a race for power that could define the future of the conservative party and the country. New elections could be next.
When Friedrich Merz went to bed on the night of Oct. 28, he was certain that his old rival, Chancellor Angela Merkel, would announce the next morning that she was stepping down from the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He had just finished watching the results from the state election in Hesse and seen the CDU plunge 11 percentage points relative to its result in 2014.
Merz has been a political insider long enough to know that Merkel couldn't simply ignore the result, particularly after the center-right had done so poorly in Bavaria just two weeks previous. And for days prior to the Hesse election, his old CDU allies had been calling to encourage him. Finally, after 18 years of waiting, the moment seemed to have arrived for which they had been waiting: the end of Merkel's tenure as chairwoman of the CDU.
And that is exactly what happened.
Merkel's announcement that she would withdraw her candidacy for CDU leadership ahead of the party's December party convention released a dynamic that immediately changed the entire architecture of the country's political framework. The leadership battle in the CDU had long been simmering. Now, it has burst out into the open. For almost two decades, internal party democracy had been frozen, Merkel's grip on leadership tight and unyielding. Now, though, there are several candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring to determine the future course of the CDU -- and nobody in the party's leadership can control what will happen next.
More than that, few in the party believe that Merkel will remain chancellor for long following the CDU convention in December -- no matter who emerges victorious in the race to succeed her.
The Closing Act
But the race isn't completely about who will end up leading Germany's strongest party in the post-Merkel era. It is also about revenge, about delayed gratification and about whether the clock can be turned back. Merkel is not only giving up a party office -- her political legacy is at stake.
What has now begun is the closing act of an extraordinary story, the German version of David versus Goliath. Once upon a time, a trio of men thought that it was up to them to lead the CDU out of the era of Helmut Kohl. It seemed guaranteed that Friedrich Merz, Roland Koch or Christian Wulff would take over leadership of the party and, later, of Germany. The future was clear before it had even arrived. But then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Angela Merkel, who cleverly took advantage of a major party donation scandal to take control of the CDU. For the trio of men from the West and their supporters -- the so-called "Andes Pact" -- Merkel was little more than an accident of history. They couldn't believe that a woman who learned her politics in the East would suddenly be steering the CDU ship. And that this woman would modernize the party to such a degree that it no longer had much to do with the CDU as they had come to know it. "Unfortunately, Merkel has no feel for the party," complained one senior CDU member at the time. "We, on the contrary, grew up within the party. We know what the CDU is and what it is not."
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In other words, it isn't just old personal wounds that are now fueling Merz and his supporters, even if such wounds are plentiful. They also have a problem with the new direction the party took under Merkel -- the slide to the left and the abandonment of traditional positions like support for nuclear energy and mandatory conscription. "If the CDU gives up pretty much everything that it considered right and proper for decades, then we shouldn't be surprised if our core voters turn away," Merz wrote fully 10 years ago.
Now, he wants to become CDU leader to correct all of the mistakes that he believes Merkel made as party chairwoman. And in doing so, the 62-year-old Merz is fulfilling the longing many party members have for the good, old CDU: conservative, pro-business and preferably masculine. Health Minister Jens Spahn, although he is 24 years younger than Merz, has a similar image of his party. And then there is CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is seen as Merkel's favorite, in part because she has tended to support the course Merkel has charted.
Merkel, though, now realizes that she no longer has any influence over the direction her party will take or over how much of her legacy will remain. She also senses that her tenure as chancellor could come to a much quicker end than she would like. Back in 2004, when then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder gave up leadership of the Social Democrats to Franz Müntefering under a similar situation to the one Merkel now faces, she blasted the move as "a complete loss of authority" and "the beginning of the end." She knows that the same could now apply to her -- which is why she had been hoping to the very end that the Hesse result would turn out better than it did.
Indeed, there are now significant doubts about the story that her decision to step down from party leadership had long been planned and was completely voluntary. There was, in fact, a group of conservatives surrounding Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of the German parliament, the Bundestag, who intended to pressure her to step down if she didn't draw the consequences herself. Schäuble had even told his friend Friedrich Merz to decide by the Sunday afternoon of the Hesse election whether he wanted to campaign for party leadership or not.
Growing Pressure on Merkel
But the Merkel opponents within the party had begun preparing for the end of Merkel's leadership long before that. Back in March, at the funeral services for Cardinal Karl Lehman, many of the members of the old Andes Pact expressed to each other their frustration with Merkel and the fact that, despite the extreme difficulties she had had putting together her current lackluster government following the general election one year ago, she had given no indication that she was preparing to make way for a new generation. They thought that it might make sense to challenge her leadership at the upcoming party convention. And they quickly agreed that Merz would make a perfect challenger -- and they began pressuring him to take on the role. One of the most important things that Merz had going for him: the support of CDU eminence grise Wolfgang Schäuble.
He didn't just give Merz advice, he also sought to open doors for him. In mid-October, Merz traveled to Brussels for talks with important politicians and officials, and Schäuble managed to arrange a meeting for him with Joseph Daul, the French head of the European People's Party, the center-right group in European Parliament to which the CDU also belongs. But not long later, Daul warned Merkel that Schäuble was working on behalf of Merz behind the scenes.
The chancellor was unimpressed. "Schäuble has a new candidate every week," she said. But it was the moment at which Merkel must have realized that her opponents were serious this time.
Merz was a frequent visitor to Brussels during this important phase. On Oct. 10, for example, he went to the fall reception of the Deutsches Aktieninstitut, a financial lobbying organization. The next morning, he met with Günther Oettinger, Germany's European commissioner and also a member of the Andes Pact. Oettinger also encouraged Merz to think about running for the CDU leadership should Merkel pull back. Oettinger felt that Merz would make a good successor because Merz had also once been a European parliamentarian and held similar views on European policy as he did. Merz told Oettinger that he wanted to wait and see how the conservatives performed in the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse.
Oettinger was far from the only one who encouraged Merz to take the step. Another member of the Andes Pact, the former governor of Hesse Roland Koch, also pushed him to think hard about running to become the CDU's leader. They had the impression that Merz wanted to take the step but was wary of the risk involved. "His preference would be for the party leadership committee to unanimously request him to run for the position," one ally joked.
Still, Merz's allies were unsure if the timing was right. They were looking ahead to the Hesse election and felt that if the CDU's result fell to 28 percent, they would be able to move forward to pressure Merkel to resign. Just to make sure, Schäuble placed an op-ed in the influential conservative weekly Welt am Sonntag on the day of the state vote. Typically for Schäuble, the text wasn't about Merkel at all, but about Max von Baden, the German chancellor who dethroned Kaiser Wilhelm II on Nov. 9, 1918.
That moment, Schäuble wrote, was "the perfect lesson for choosing the right moment in politics." Von Baden's hesitation had "increased the pressure that led to the revolutionary events of Nov. 9," Schäuble wrote, adding that von Baden's tenure as chancellor was a lesson that the right moment in politics "is usually only apparent in hindsight. And that doing nothing can also have consequences."
Merkel's allies have become experts over the years in decoding the hidden messages delivered by long-time adversary Schäuble, knew immediately how this particular history lesson was intended: as a demand that Merkel hand over leadership of the CDU.
When the results from Hesse began rolling in that Sunday evening, it quickly became clear that the CDU was in trouble, even if the party would likely still remain in power in the state as the head of a coalition government. That evening, Schäuble's son-in-law Thomas Stobl, himself a deputy leader of the CDU, flew on behalf of the anti-Merkel group to feel out whether the time was right to push her out.
But Strobl's mission was in vain: Merkel gave no indication that she was preparing to resign from the post. Shortly after the first results from Hesse were announced, Kramp-Karrenbauer met with Merkel to ask the chancellor how she should respond to questions about Merkel's future.
"What should I tell the journalists?" she asked. "Has your position changed?" Merkel told her that her conviction that the positions of party chair and chancellor must be held by the same person -- as she had recently told the daily Augsburger Allgemeine -- had not budged.
A short time later, Kramp-Karrenbauer went before the cameras in the foyer of CDU party headquarters in Berlin and said: "The CDU party chairwoman has been very clear that she intends to run again at the party convention."
Not even 24 hours later, though, Merkel stood at the same spot and delivered the exact opposite message, saying she would not run again to become party chair. During the press conference, Merkel didn't make a big deal of the fact that she had just completely contradicted herself. Yes, she said, the decision "is a significant deviation from my deeply felt conviction." But, she added, she still felt the "risk" was justifiable. She seemed completely in control and not at all agitated, as though she had accepted her fate.
"Since when have I been thinking of this step?" she asked rhetorically. "Since before the summer break."
And indeed, she had been thinking about it for some time. There are very few people who Merkel consults about questions of such existential importance. But one of them is Annette Schavan, the former education minister. On the last weekend in July, right in the middle of the parliamentary break, Schavan traveled to Hohenwalde, a town just short of the border with Poland, to visit with Merkel at her dacha. This is where Merkel spent much of her summer vacation this year, forgoing her usual trip to South Tyrol.
During Schavan's visit, the two them discussed potential future scenarios, and both were convinced that conservatives were facing steep losses in the upcoming state elections in Bavaria and Hesse and that pressure on Merkel would continue to rise. The two women considered how Merkel could justify giving up the party chair position if need be while at the same time hanging on to the Chancellery. Merkel, though, secretly hoped that it wouldn't come to that, as can be seen from her subsequent comments to the Augsburger Allgemeine.
But ultimately, she saw an increasing number of indications that her rival Friedrich Merz wasn't just thinking of a candidacy but was taking concrete steps. The plan she had hammered out with Schavan was becoming more probable all the time.
Merkel likely made her decision on the evening of the election in Hesse. Critique of her leadership from state chapters of the CDU had begun trickling into the Chancellery and the rumor that Merz was intending to challenge her for party leadership was solidifying. It became clear to Merkel that a debate about her position as party chair would erupt in the coming days and she couldn't wait for the party leadership retreat scheduled for a week hence. She had to take action if she wanted some modicum of control of the unfolding situation.
On Monday morning, just minutes before party leaders were set to gather to discuss the Hesse result, Merkel walked into Kramp-Karrenbauer's office and told the general secretary that she was not going to run for re-election as CDU chairwoman. For a moment, Kramp-Karrenbauer was speechless.
A Period of Anarchy
In the meeting a short time later, Merkel had hardly informed party officials of her decision before a representative of Friedrich Merz informed the mass-circulation tabloid Bild that he intended to run.
That put the pressure on Kramp-Karrenbauer. She had actually hoped to wait a bit, feeling as she did that a sudden announcement was somehow disrespectful to Merkel. But she was concerned that the Merz train could quickly gather momentum. So she held a long speech about the tepid results from Hesse and spoke of the problems that the CDU had to address in the future. And finished her remarks by saying: "That is why I am running for the position of chairwoman." Applause erupted in the room.
Just minutes later, Jens Spahn threw his hat into the ring as well. It was a spontaneous move with no real plan behind it. The room went silent.
"It wasn't coordinated," says a member of the CDU's conservative wing. "There was a loss of control for a couple of hours on Monday." Spahn, the conservative wing representative says, "lost his nerve," adding that "following every dictatorship, a period of anarchy follows. That's what happened on Monday."
Merz and his close friend Schäuble have been waiting for a long time for an opportunity to get even with Merkel and to reverse her political course. Few other CDU politicians feel as humiliated by her as those two, both of whom believe that Merkel prevented them from receiving their political dues. Now, they are standing in the way of the chancellor's final political goal: that of retaining control over her own departure.
The two men have been friends for a long time. When Schäuble celebrated his 75th birthday one year ago, Merz wasn't just invited to the official ceremony, but also to the private party for family and friends. Merkel was not. Merz was also among the first to learn that Schäuble no longer wanted to be in the cabinet following last year's general election.
Merz has a lot to thank Schäuble for. Back in 1996, Schäuble installed Merz as the senior conservative on the Finance Committee in German parliament. Four years later, he then ensured that Merz succeeded him as conservative floor leader when he was forced to resign in early 2000 due to his role in the CDU donation scandal.
Schäuble also promoted Merkel, surprising everyone in 1998 by making her the party's general secretary. Everyone assumed that she would remain loyal to Schäuble out of gratitude, but Merkel seized the first chance she got to set out on her own.
In mid-December 1999, just as the party donation scandal was reaching its apex, Merkel published her famous open letter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung challenging the party to emancipate itself from Helmut Kohl. Schäuble only learned of the existence of the letter once it was published. It was the first wound that Merkel inflicted on him.
He paid her back in his own way. When the question arose two years later whether Merkel would be the chancellor candidate for the conservatives or whether that honor would go to Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sister party, Schäuble supported Stoiber. As did Merz and other senior members of the Andes Pact.
What Merz didn't know, however, is that Stoiber had promised to support Merkel for the position of conservative floor leader after the election. When Merz learned about the deal on the evening of Stoiber's defeat to Gerhard Schröder, he was furious. It was only with significant effort that Schäuble was able to convince him to remain in politics at all -- and Merz was left to serve his hated rival as deputy floor leader.
'The Woman from East Germany'
Merz never really got over the defeat. In an interview shortly after the 2002 general election, he complained that Merkel had not adhered to an agreement regarding the position of floor leader. But, he added grumpily, he wasn't surprised. After all, he "knows her in such situations."
Increasingly, Merz was unable to hide his dislike for Merkel. The fact that "the woman from East Germany," as he called her, passed by all of her deserving party allies and then even managed to win the Chancellery is something that he saw as a lasting ignominy. In 2009, Merz decided to no longer campaign for re-election in the Bundestag and left politics.
Schäuble's relationship with Merkel likewise worsened quickly, reaching its nadir in the spring of 2004. That year saw the election of a new German president and Merkel had initially supported Schäuble for the position. But then she saw an opportunity to push through a candidate together with the support of the business-friendly Free Democrats as a kind of precursor to joining the party in a future governing coalition. In the decisive meeting of CDU leaders in March 2004, Schäuble made one final effort to turn the tide in his own favor. It isn't wise, he said, "to allow smaller partners to dictate important decisions." Everyone knew how difficult it was for Schäuble to toot his own horn, but he badly wanted the office of president.
Still, Merkel wouldn't budge and together with the FDP, she installed the former International Monetary Fund head Horst Köhler in the office.
From that point on, Schäuble was damned to serve in the cabinet of a woman who had destroyed his life's dream. First, he served as interior minister before moving to the Finance Ministry -- and he consistently made it clear that he felt he had better leadership qualities than Merkel.
The depth of the wounds suffered by Merz and Schäuble would occasionally surface in the ensuing years. "The strategy of putting as many voters from the other side into a coma is likely at an end," Merz said bitingly last year in reference to Merkel's soporific political style. Schäuble, for his part, became more vocal in his criticism the weaker Merkel became, particularly in reference to her refugee policies, the result of which he described as an "avalanche."
Following the most recent general election in September 2017, Schäuble elected to leave the cabinet for the position of Bundestag president. That meant that he no longer had to hew as closely to the Chancellery line, a freedom of which he has taken full advantage. Ahead of the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, he publicly speculated about the end of the Merkel era. "She is no longer as beyond dispute as she was in the past three, or two-and-a-half, legislative periods," he said. He said he expected the election results would have consequences for national policy and, as such, for the chancellor's standing.
By that point, Schäuble knew that his friend Merz was ready to run for the position of CDU party chairman. Indeed, he didn't just encourage Merz to do so, but also helped him choose the appropriate timing of his announcement. The more quickly he made his announcement following the Hesse election, Schäuble told Merz, the worse it would be for Merkel.
- Part 1: The Beginning of the Post-Merkel Era
- Part 2: A Rendevouz with the Past