Today in Hamburg, 1001 delegates to the congress of the Christian Democratic Union will elect a successor to Angela Merkel as party leader. The winner is likely to succeed Merkel also as chancellor within a few years. That person will be either Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, “AKK,” or Friedrich Merz. Who is the better choice?
AKK, as the current chancellor’s favorite, is derided as being a “mini-Merkel”: a centrist but religious woman from the fringes of Germany (near the French border in AKK’s case, the Polish one in Merkel’s). Both are traditional on family values (and sceptical about gay marriage) but tactically open to lefty ideas in economics. Temperamentally, both are de-escalators who conciliate rather than polarize. So AKK represents “more of the same,” which sounds unexciting but safe.
Merz is very different. Old, for a start, at 63. (AKK is 56.) But also old symbolically. Merz embodied the soul of the CDU around 2002, when Merkel nudged him aside as chief whip in parliament. Back then he was a stalwart conservative with bold visions for radical tax reform. His unapologetic embrace of capitalism is what the CDU’s business wing has been yearning for. To his fans, his success as a capitalist since leaving politics - as chairman of the German arm of BlackRock, among other roles - only adds to that allure.
But in Germany, that enthusiasm for market economics also makes him polarizing. Ironically, that’s why the center-left Social Democrats, who are in the doldrums, are rooting for Merz. They want the CDU to move right after years of its centrist poaching, so the SPD can distinguish itself again. Merz himself sells his appeal differently. He promises to dampen the far-right Alternative for Germany and restore the CDU to its old center-right grandeur. I doubt it.
In foreign policy, they would probably turn out less different than it appears. AKK is Francophile, but also provincial (she is currently brushing up on her English). Merz is the quintessential jet-setting Atlanticist and even chairs a non-profit that cultivates ties to America. He’s at ease with “all his Johns and Jacks and Jims,” as one acquaintance puts it. But both are pro-Europe. And both are freaked out by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and wary of China.
One argument against Merz is that he is driven by vengefulness against Merkel, and would force her out of the chancellery sooner rather than later. It’s true that he can’t stand her, which is probably mutual. It’s also true that he is in cahoots with Wolfgang Schäuble, the éminence grise of German and CDU politics. As Merkel putsched those two men out of power a generation ago, the theory goes, they now want to return the favor. I think the opposite is more likely. Precisely because Merz is under suspicion, he would play nicely with Merkel until his turn comes in 2021.
If a sharp break from the Merkel era is what the CDU craves, it should elect Merz. But there’s a reason why the CDU has always been known as a “club for the election of chancellors.” More than the SPD, the CDU is focussed not on ideological purity but on winning elections. And polls show that the general public views AKK as more “trustworthy” and “likable.” They also show that in a hypothetical contest against SPD candidates, AKK would win, Merz possibly not. For the delegates in Hamburg, that should seal the deal.