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Germany’s long goodbye: Thank you Mrs. Merkel

Germany’s Iron Chancellor of the new millennium is now stepping into history and in an emotional farewell speech to her ruling Christian Democrats (CDU), she has stepped down as party leader. She has stepped down still fighting for the basic values she passionately believes in and exhorted her party to carry on by example.

“Our liberal values must be defended, internally and externally,” she said. Mrs. Merkel's speech was punctuated by applause and she got a standing ovation of more than six minutes at the end.

CDU delegates at the congress in Hamburg also held up signs saying “Thanks boss” Despite quitting as CDU leader she plans to complete her fourth term as German chancellor, which runs until 2021.

She was first elected chancellor in 2005 and is not seeking a term beyond 2021. Who are the potential successors as this is important for relationship not only within the European Union, but in the relationship with a transactional US President.

CDU party secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK by her initials, who is favored by Merkel as her successor, was generally considered the front runner The 56-year-old former prime minister of the state of Saarland was appointed CDU general secretary earlier this year and is the party favorite, polls had suggested.

Popular in Saarland and Berlin, she has an unpretentious style and a reputation for calm analysis, as well as political acumen. Her greatest strength is also her greatest weakness; she is a Merkel loyalist, perceived as someone who will replicate much of the chancellor's style and policy and some will not forgive Mrs. Merkel for recent local state elections and ignoring the noise of populist anti-immigration sentiments.

But if she failed to win a majority of the 1,001-member votes on the first ballot, some thought her primary rival, Friedrich Merz, had a very strong chance to edge her out for the party leadership. The millionaire businessman was a powerful player in the CDU in the early 2000s but left politics when he fell out with the chancellor.


Private sector career

Since then the 63-year-old lawyer - who has strong links to America - has built a career in the private sector and works for US investment firm Blackrock. He appeals to the more conservative and business-minded wing of the party and has the official backing of current Bundestag President and ex-Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

The third candidate, Jens Spahn, had no chance of winning, the health minister is ambitious and, aged 38, the youngest of the three candidates. A former banker, he was once described by Mr. Schäuble as “one of the great hopes for the future of our party”.

But Mr. Spahn is facing some deep rooted prejudices in what is on the surface a liberal and open German society and has ruffled feathers as he is sharply conservative, Catholic and gay, and is a divisive figure for many.

As a prelude to the vote, AKK is said to have given “the best speech of a lifetime” at the conference, while Merz is said to have given one of his most lackluster speeches, and that from supporters in his own camp.

The delegates voting in Hamburg was competitive and went to a second run off with AKK defeating conservative favorite Friedrich Merz by 517 votes to 482 in runoff ballot but Kramp-Karrenbauer graciously offering her fellow candidates Merz and Jens Spahn a role in running the CDU, and extending a hand following the hotly contested race to succeed Merkel.

This was reciprocated much to the relief of Mrs. Merkel who did not want to exit the political scene only to leave a bitter inter party civil war like the UK’s Conservative party is now facing over Brexit uncertainties.


The new leader

In his concession speech, Merz offered his backing for Kramp-Karrenbauer and urged his supporters to get behind the party’s new leader. She will now be viewed as first in line to run for chancellor in 2021 after Merkel’s surprise announcement in October that her fourth term will be her last.

But some had really believed that Merz could still likely win, on two counts: the first is that the third candidate Spahn was almost certain to call for his supporters to vote for Merz in a second round, and second, and more importantly, Merz has the considerable backing of Bundestag President and CDU veteran Wolfgang Schaeuble, who many in the CDU consider “the best Chancellor Germany never had,” and who will be discreetly marshaling support for Merz.

German political observers have long felt Schaeuble has been the power behind the maneuverings inside the CDU and the Christian Social Union over the last year to dislodge Merkel as Chancellor.

If Merkel’s favored candidate AKK had lost to Merz, some suspected it would have accelerated Merkel's departure as Chancellor, either in new federal elections or a vote of confidence, probably sometime after the May European Parliamentary elections next year.

Even after AKK’s win, Merkel's Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats will remain weakened by the internal CDU and CSU turmoil, as well as the SPD's own party problems.

Some had feared that if Merz did take the CDU party leadership, that the odds would have risen significantly that it could push the SPD into leaving the Grand Coalition and into opposition for a period to rebuild the party’s standing and to counter the gains by the Greens in the political center in German politics.

If the SPD does pull out, it will mean new federal elections, again, probably after the May European elections. AKK’s win is a relief for many as it signals continuity with Mrs. Merkel’s policies and some stability in a European continent beset by domestic populist pressures, the latest being the French street rioting against President Macron.

With her final departure as Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel will join that pantheon of great female leaders like Mrs. Ghandi and Mrs. Thatcher who have shown men what the so-called weaker sex can achieve, and be role models for future generations of female politicians.

 

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