Compass World: German Leadership Transition 101

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I'M A BOSS, YOU A WORKER BITCH / I MAKE MERKEL MOVES

December 7 marked the end of an era in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel resigned as chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and 1,001 party delegates from across Germany gathered in Hamburg to determine the future of their party—and country.

During her eighteen years at the top of the CDU, Merkel pushed the party to the left, cannibalizing voters from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and defining her party as the party at the center of German politics. Her phrase wir schaffen das, commonly translated as “we can do this,” initiated one of the boldest social experiments in modern European history, with Germany mobilizing to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing northward.

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Though the results of this policy of openness, and her Energiewende policy, a wholesale reinvention of electricity production, are mixed, they defined Germany as a bold nation willing to take decisive action. They leave Merkel's successor as head of the CDU, and eventually as chancellor, with big shoes to fill. There were three contenders for the job:

The Chosen One :  Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer , who is commonly known as AKK or Mini-Merkel, served as minister president of Saarland, Germany’s smallest state, before being hand picked by Merkel in February to serve as general secretary of the CDU. AKK struck an optimistic note in her speech at the party conference, asking the delegates to have the courage to stand against the zeitgeist and embrace her own positive vision for the future. She argued that this vision is the key to solving the problems facing Germany and Europe: digitalization, stagnant wages despite a strong economy, and inequality.

The Chosen One:
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is commonly known as AKK or Mini-Merkel, served as minister president of Saarland, Germany’s smallest state, before being hand picked by Merkel in February to serve as general secretary of the CDU. AKK struck an optimistic note in her speech at the party conference, asking the delegates to have the courage to stand against the zeitgeist and embrace her own positive vision for the future. She argued that this vision is the key to solving the problems facing Germany and Europe: digitalization, stagnant wages despite a strong economy, and inequality.

The Unexpected One :   Friedrich Merz  is a multimillionaire corporate lawyer and former leader of the CDU in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. His candidacy came as a surprise to many because Merz left politics in 2009. But, he attracted significant support from the party’s pro-business wing. In contrast to Kramp-Karrenbauer’s development of a vision for the future, Merz’s speech at the party conference focused on the present. He attacked the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and urged the CDU to change its strategy to combat the AfD. Merz sees today’s Germany as plagued by growing financial insecurity, but he argued that the people want the state to leave them be and let them work.

The Unexpected One:
Friedrich Merz is a multimillionaire corporate lawyer and former leader of the CDU in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. His candidacy came as a surprise to many because Merz left politics in 2009. But, he attracted significant support from the party’s pro-business wing. In contrast to Kramp-Karrenbauer’s development of a vision for the future, Merz’s speech at the party conference focused on the present. He attacked the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and urged the CDU to change its strategy to combat the AfD. Merz sees today’s Germany as plagued by growing financial insecurity, but he argued that the people want the state to leave them be and let them work.

The Impatient One :   Jens Spahn , who serves as the German minister of health and is openly gay, is the youngest of the three at 38. He trailed both Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz in the polls but drew significant support from the right wing of the CDU. Much like AKK, Spahn outlined a vision for the future in his speech at the party conference. But, the similarities ended there. Turning from this vision, Spahn called for a modern German patriotism to shore up the expansion of freedom in Germany in recent years, which he argues is “under pressure from left-wing moralists, who preach borderless tolerance and in the end achieve the exact opposite; from right radicals, [...] who hate diversity; from religious fundamentalists, who want to force their ideology through violence upon us.” Further differentiating him from even Merz, Spahn urged the party to confront the issue of migration and to continue to hold open debates on such controversial topics.

The Impatient One:
Jens Spahn, who serves as the German minister of health and is openly gay, is the youngest of the three at 38. He trailed both Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz in the polls but drew significant support from the right wing of the CDU. Much like AKK, Spahn outlined a vision for the future in his speech at the party conference. But, the similarities ended there. Turning from this vision, Spahn called for a modern German patriotism to shore up the expansion of freedom in Germany in recent years, which he argues is “under pressure from left-wing moralists, who preach borderless tolerance and in the end achieve the exact opposite; from right radicals, [...] who hate diversity; from religious fundamentalists, who want to force their ideology through violence upon us.” Further differentiating him from even Merz, Spahn urged the party to confront the issue of migration and to continue to hold open debates on such controversial topics.

 

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

In the end, the party delegates chose Kramp-Karrenbauer after two rounds of voting, the first of which eliminated Spahn from the running. Unlike her competitors, she will most likely continue the CDU’s hold over the center without pushing the party to the right. She, and Merkel's eventual successor as chancellor, face several problems:

  • Long-term aftereffects of wir schaffen das: integrating hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany through language and job training; deporting thousands more asylum seekers who have been denied refugee status; and limiting the broader backlash to refugees.

  • Failing climate policy: Germany failed to meet its goal of a 40 percent reduction in CO2 by 2020 from 1990 levels. Partially to blame is the lack of a viable, scalable alternative to coal power, even as the country aggressively closes nuclear power plants as part of its Energiewende in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan in 2011. Experts also blame the lack of a clear, long-term grand strategy to address climate change, which has of late benefited the left-leaning Greens in polls.

  • Rising costs of living: a problem that bears similarity to that which created the recent Yellow Vest protests in France. Germany has avoided stoking such widespread anger over the lack of affordable housing in cities and stagnant wages so far, but without Merkel’s steadying hand, this could change.

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Based on historical precedent, it is likely that Kramp-Karrenbauer will become the next German chancellor after the Bundestag election scheduled for 2021. Since the founding of West Germany in 1949, the CDU has governed Germany, off and on, for almost 50 years. Kramp-Karrenbauer is not truly Mini-Merkel, but she is no radical choice.