Leadership turmoil looms over Merkel’s conservative party congress

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Berlin (dpa) ā€“ The annual conference of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) kicks into gear on Friday against the growing threat of a leadership crisis, as the German chancellor’s chosen successor battles to exert her authority on the conservative party.

Merkel’s hopes of a smooth transfer of power to CDU party chief Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer by the 2021 election have been thrown off course by a sharp fall in Kramp-Karrenbauer’s support, as measured by voter surveys amid a series of election setbacks.

Merkel only plans to make a brief appearance at the conference as part of her attempt to switch the political spotlight onto AKK, as Kramp-Karrenbauer is broadly known.

Kramp-Karrenbauer admitted this week that she has made mistakes since taking over the top CDU job a year ago. She has tried to cast the annual two-day convention of about 1,000 party delegates as a meeting to work through key policy issues.

A former premier of the small western state of Saarland, Kramp-Karrenbauer will be hoping to shore up her authority within the CDU when she speaks on Friday at the conference, which is being held in the eastern city of Leipzig.

In a series of media interviews ahead of the conference, Kramp-Karrenbauer insisted that the party should concentrate on issues of importance to voters, insisting that she was in charge of the process for selecting the candidate to replace Merkel as chancellor and to head up the CDU’s 2021 election campaign.

“I am the party leader who leads this process from the outset,” she told the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“We will settle [the chancellor candidate question] late in 2020 at our party congress,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “Anyone who wants to do otherwise has the chance here in Leipzig to make their voice heard.”

But the decline in Kramp-Karrenbauer’s political fortunes have helped to trigger speculation that AKK could face a fresh challenge in her bid to become Merkel’s successor as head of Europe’s biggest economy.

Part of the focus in Leipzig will be on a possible showdown between Kramp-Karrenbauer and her chief rival, businessman and former CDU heavyweight Friedrich Merz, who is popular with the party’s conservative wing and is also due to speak at the convention.

Merz last month lashed out at the Merkel-led coalition government with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), describing its performance as “abysmal” and questioning its chance of surviving another two years.

However, opposition to the present party leadership could ultimately centre on Merkel’s plans not to block the Chinese telecoms group Huawei from bidding for the rollout of Germany’s 5G network. A group of delegates are set to propose a motion calling on Berlin to oppose the company’s involvement.

Another possible area of conflict in Leipzig could be over the Merkel government’s move to introduce a basic pension for low income earners.

Also looming over the convention are calls from a group of CDU members for the party to hold talks with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) following a surge in the party’s support – largely at the expense of the CDU.

The Leipzig conference is also being held against the backdrop of a bleak outlook for the German economy, as well as tensions in Merkel’s fragile coalition with the SPD.

The CDU leadership debate has been given a sense of urgency by the risk that the SPD could vote at its December party conference to pull out of the Merkel-led coalition, possibly prompting an early election.