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Angela Merkel's would-be successor in Germany resigns instead

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's designated successor unexpectedly threw in the towel Monday, plunging her conservative party into deeper crisis as it struggles to agree on its future political direction after losing votes to the far right.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has committed series of gaffes

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, in Berlin earlier this month with CDU party chair and Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Kramp-Karrenbauer will quit her role as head of Germany's strongest party in the summer and won't stand for the chancellorship. (Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's designated successor unexpectedly threw in the towel Monday, plunging her conservative party into deeper crisis as it struggles to agree on its future political direction after losing votes to the far right.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told leading members of the Christian Democratic Union that she won't be seeking the chancellorship in next year's election, upending Merkel's plans to hand her the reins after more than 15 years in power.

"I took note of this decision with the utmost respect, but I also say that I regret it," Merkel told reporters, thanking Kramp-Karrenbauer for her work and for agreeing to stay on until a new party leader is chosen.

Kramp-Karrenbauer plans to remain in her role as Germany's defence minister.

Kramp-Karrenbauer's decision not to run for chancellor leaves a big question mark over Germany's future direction just as its economy, the world's fourth largest, flirts with recession and as the European Union struggles to define itself after Brexit.

The announcement reflects the growing split within the Christian Democrats that was exposed last week in its handling of the election of a governor in the state of Thuringia. Regional party lawmakers there voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) to oust the left-wing incumbent, ignoring advice from Berlin leadership.

The CDU representatives not only defied Kramp-Karrenbauer's advance appeals and undermined her leadership, but broke what is widely regarded as a taboo in post-war German politics around cooperating with extremist parties.

"The AfD stands against everything we as the CDU represent," Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters Monday in Berlin.

Manfred Weber, a German member of the European Union parliament who leads a centre-right bloc in the EU legislature, told daily newspaper Welt that the situation in Thuringia reflected a Europe that "is in a phase of growing instability; politics is becoming more serious."

"In general, it is a sign of growing instability among the parties of the middle all across Europe. The parties of the middle must draw their red line to those with radical right tendencies," Weber said. "This approach from Kramp-Karrenbauer was and is correct." 

Tenuous coalition

Merkel has said she will not run for a fifth term in Germany's next general election, which is now scheduled for fall 2021. Any shift to the right in Merkel's centre-right party could trigger a break with Merkel's junior coalition partners in Germany's federal government, the centre-left Social Democrats, and increase the chances the country will hold the next general election early.

"If it's up to me, it won't have any effect on the stability of the grand coalition," Kramp-Karrenbauer said after announcing her planned withdrawal.

Among the names currently being bandied around as future party leaders were Health Minister Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz, who were beaten to the leadership by Kramp-Karrenbauer in December 2018. Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, is also being mentioned as a possible contender.

While Spahn and Laschet are considered centrists in the Merkel tradition, Merz has tried to appeal to the conservative wing of the party that has flirted with the far-right AfD. A lawyer and former party veteran, Merz was sidelined by Merkel before she became chancellor in 2005.

 

Peter Altmaier, Germany's economy minister and a close Merkel ally, said the Christian Democrats were in "an unusually serious situation."

Current polls have Merkel's conservative block holding steady at about 28 per cent support nationally, followed by the left-leaning Greens at about 22 per cent.

Yet the Social Democrats are struggling with only about 14 per cent support, about the same as the AfD.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, 57, won a vote in December 2018 to succeed Merkel as CDU leader, though many remained unconvinced of her leadership credentials.

The far-right scandal in Thuringia proved to be the last straw, but her ratings plummeted last year after a number of public gaffes, including poking fun at transgender people in what was supposed to be a light-hearted speech at a carnival.

Alternative for Germany welcomed Kramp-Karrenbauer's resignation, as did Germany's former domestic intelligence chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, a vocal figure on the right of Merkel's party since his ouster in 2018.

AfD has established itself as a powerful far-right force since its founding in 2013, taking double-digit shares of the vote in regional and national elections. Its success has complicated Germany's political tradition of governing with multi-party coalitions, as most of its rivals have ruled out working with Alternative for Germany.

The party has successfully wielded populist tactics, emphasizing national self-interest and immigration controls while tolerating anti-Semitism and historical revisionism among its members.

With files from Reuters

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