A dispute has broken out in the upper echelons of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union after Bundestag speaker Wolfgang Schäuble publicly endorsed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s old rival Friedrich Merz to succeed her as CDU leader.
Peter Altmaier, the economics minister, said he was “surprised” by Mr Schäuble’s comments, saying the delegates gathering in Hamburg to elect a new leader at the weekend should have been allowed to make up their own minds without outside interference.
But, now that the “dam had burst”, he had decided to come out in support of Mr Merz’s rival, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the current CDU secretary-general. He said that with AKK, as she is universally known, “we have the best chance to unite the CDU and win elections”.
Mr Altmaier’s outburst has exposed the big ideological divide within the CDU over the party’s direction.
The election was scheduled after Ms Merkel responded to a string of dismal results for the CDU in regional elections, latterly in the western state of Hesse, by announcing she would step down as party leader after 18 years. Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, Mr Merz and the health minister Jens Spahn quickly threw their hats into the ring.
But the campaign has turned into a contest between two competing visions of the Christian Democrats’ future. Widely seen as Ms Merkel’s favoured successor, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is most likely to keep the party on its current centrist path, while Messrs Merz and Spahn would push it to the right.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is backed by moderates who want the CDU to remain a big-tent, middle-of-the-road party that is just as attractive to social democrats and Greens as to dyed-in-the-wool conservatives.
Supporters of Mr Merz and Mr Spahn want it to accentuate its conservative roots, in part to woo back disgruntled conservatives who have defected to the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany.
Mr Altmaier said that, as interior minister and later prime minister of the small western state of Saarland, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer had shown she could win elections “under difficult conditions, and several times over”. Under her leadership, the CDU had won last year’s regional poll in Saarland with 41 per cent of the vote, a result it has struggled to match ever since.
Mr Altmaier said Mr Merz, an economic liberal who is chairman of BlackRock Germany and used to be head of the CDU group in parliament, would win back some voters from the pro-business Free Democratic party. “But the CDU must defend its position in the centre,” he said.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer “wins elections in the centre ground”, just like previous CDU chancellors such as Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, who had appealed to workers, tradesmen, the middle class and the self-employed — groups that were “indispensable” for ensuring CDU majorities.
Mr Schäuble, a CDU grandee who served as German finance minister for eight years before becoming speaker of the Bundestag late last year, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, this week that a victory for Mr Merz would be “the best thing for this country”.
“He is a committed European, a reliable fighter for the Atlantic partnership and someone who upholds the social market economy,” he said. Having someone with “such a clear compass” as party leader would help the CDU sharpen its profile.
Mr Schäuble said that with European Parliament elections looming and a number of regional and municipal polls on the horizon, the CDU needed a clearer identity, which would “stabilise” the German party system and “weaken the political extremes”. He said Mr Merz would best achieve that.