Whoever succeeds Angela Merkel as leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union on Friday will face a Herculean task — uniting a centre-right party riven by deep splits over its direction.
The campaign for the CDU leadership has exposed an ideological rift between supporters of Ms Merkel’s pragmatic, centrist policies and a vocal wing that wants the party to break with the Merkel era and shift decisively to the right.
The 1,001 delegates gathering in Hamburg to elect a new leader must decide between two frontrunners who represent these competing visions. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is a Merkel loyalist and moderate, while Friedrich Merz is a conservative who has long complained about the party’s leftward drift under Chancellor Merkel.
“The CDU is split between two models — one represented by AKK-Merkel and the other by Merz,” said Katja Leikert, deputy leader of the CDU parliamentary group.
The rift runs from the top of the party right through to its rank-and-file. “Even the local CDU association in my constituency is divided,” said Ms Leikert. Some members had threatened to quit the party if Mr Merz was not elected, she added.
Among party leaders, the succession battle has sparked some rare public divisions. Wolfgang Schäuble, former finance minister and CDU eminence grise, this week publicly endorsed Mr Merz for party leader, earning a rebuke from Peter Altmaier, economics minister and a close confidante of Ms Merkel. Delegates should be allowed to make their own minds up without outside interference, Mr Altmaier said. But, he added, now that the “dam had burst”, he was backing Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The candidates themselves — including Jens Spahn, the health minister, who is polling in third place — agree on many things, such as the need to support Germany’s police and military, improve law and order and balance the government budget.
But on one of the most divisive issues in German politics — immigration — they disagree profoundly. In particular they have different views of Ms Merkel’s decision to keep Germany’s borders open at the height of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis and the subsequent influx of more than 1m migrants.
Mr Merz has said the chancellor’s initial move to admit refugees stranded in Hungary in autumn 2015 was a “wonderful humanitarian gesture” but that the normal border regime should have been restored as soon as possible. He has also suggested that Germany should modify the individual right to asylum enshrined in its constitution.
Mr Spahn has similarly called the events of 2015-16 a “failure of government” and demanded more debate within the CDU about the open-door policy. He has also ensured Friday’s party conference will debate a UN migration pact designed to improve global co-operation on refugees. The German government supports the initiative but it has been criticised by anti-immigration groups, including the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
But the constant debate about refugees has angered moderates. “It’s not clever from a strategic point of view to keep emphasising an issue that for most people is no longer so pressing,” said Armin Laschet, the CDU prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.
“People know that the immigration numbers have gone down drastically,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “For them, other issues are important: social care, health, digitalisation, competitiveness.”
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer has made a similar argument, warning that the CDU risks falling into the same endless soul-searching the Social Democrats have indulged in over the Hartz IV reforms, the overhaul of Germany’s welfare state that they enacted in the 2000s. “Even now, years later, they’re wondering if it was a good or bad idea,” she said last month.
Immigration is not the only faultline running through the CDU. The candidates also differ on another controversial moment in 2015 — the Merkel-led government’s support for the third Greek bailout.
Speaking on ARD, the TV channel, this week, Mr Merz said the EU should have backed a proposal by Mr Schäuble to give Greece a five-year “timeout” from the eurozone. The purpose was “not to make an example of Greece, but to give it the chance to devalue its currency and then create a more competitive industry”, he said. Mr Spahn expressed a similar view on the same programme.
But Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer told ARD that she supported Ms Merkel’s decision to keep Greece in the eurozone. “I saw the situation the same way as [her], because the big question was: do we create a possible domino effect?” she said.
Lucas Guttenberg, deputy director of the Delors Institute think-tank in Berlin, said Mr Merz was “calling into question the euro’s character as an irreversible currency union” — an idea Ms Merkel has always steadfastly supported.
“This goes to show that, just as with migration, the CDU is still split over whether the 2015 decision to keep Greece in the eurozone was a mistake — and more fundamentally, over how the party sees the euro,” Mr Guttenberg said.
With restoring party unity a clear priority for the new CDU leader, much could rest on their ability to work well with Ms Merkel, who has vowed to remain German chancellor until 2021. In the event of a win for Mr Merz, who has in the past made clear his dislike of Ms Merkel, that could prove elusive.
“Everyone knows how tense their relationship is,” said Tilman Mayer, a political scientist at the University of Bonn. “For that reason, integrating the party could prove harder for him than for AKK.”