Amid Thuringia fallout, German Christian Democrats mull new leaders

A meeting expected next week will let luminaries from Germany’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) weigh in on their willingness to be the party’s next leader – and even chancellor candidate – after several days of turmoil in the party.

Interested politicians could potentially include Friedrich Merz, former leader of the party’s parliamentary group; Health Minister Jens Spahn; and Armin Laschet, currently state premier of North Rhine Westphalia.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the departing party head, did not state a particular date, but her plans were confirmed by sources close to CDU circles on Wednesday.

Kramp-Karrenbauer had been tipped to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, who previously stepped down as leader of the CDU, but remains chancellor until the next polls.

However, Kramp-Karrenbauer made a surprise announcement on Monday that she will not run to succeed Merkel, upsetting plans for a smooth handover of power. She will remain party leader until a conference decides who should replace Merkel.

Kramp-Karrenbauer is expected to speak with Markus Soeder, the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) – the CDU’s Bavaria-only sister party – on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, which opens on Thursday. No date for their meeting has not been set.

As a next step, the Christian Democrats are likely to conduct a special party conference to nominate a new party leader and candidate for chancellor. The next federal elections are expected in 2021.

First, senior party members would need to agree on the need for such a conference. They could do so at their next regular sitting on February 24.

A special party conference could then take place in late April, at the earliest. But CDU members say it might not take place until May or June.

On Wednesday, Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) said they would only commit to continuing their ruling coalition with Merkel’s CDU as long as the chancellor serves out her term.

“Angela Merkel is the ruling chancellor. We went into this coalition with her. And we will also leave this coalition with her – in the regular way at the next election,” SPD secretary general Lars Klingbeil said in comments to German media group RND.

“We want to continue our joint work in the government with the CDU. This government has been elected to rule until autumn 2021.”

The CDU’s change in leadership after Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement would be no problem for cooperation in the coalition, Klingbeil said.

Looking ahead, Klingbeil said, “whether the CDU is dependable will be evident from their attitude to the right. The CDU must severely distance themselves from their internal AfD fan club, the Werteunion,” referring to a conservative grouping within the CDU party.

He was referring to the dilemma faced by the Christian Democrats in the central German state of Thuringia after the shock election of a liberal candidate who was supported by the far-right Alternative for Germany, as well as members of the CDU.

Working with the AfD – an anti-immigrant party accused of harbouring Nazi sympathizers and fuelling anti-Semitism – has been a red line for German establishment parties. Fresh elections are now planned in Thuringia.

Klingbeil added that he assumes that the CDU knows their responsibility and “with an eye on the European Council presidency, will not now get carried away.” Germany is due to take over the presidency later in 2020.

By Stefan Heinemeyer and Christian Andresen, dpa