Jens Spahn looked strained at a regional meeting of the center-right Christian Democratic Union in rural Thuringia last week. Maybe the politician didn’t fancy the traditional Ash Wednesday herrings, or the oompah music was too loud. Or perhaps it was the strain after months of battling Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Whatever it was, it didn't bother the audience listening. The 1,300 attendees cheered Mr. Spahn, the junior finance minister, long a protégé of former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and a conservative rising star. Mr. Spahn is high in demand among the CDU and he gave a speech another speech at a similar beer-tent shindig in Baden-Württemberg, hundreds of miles away, later that same day.
At 37, Mr. Spahn belongs to a younger generation of hawkish CDU leaders who are eager to shake up their party after 12 years of staid Merkel leadership. He and two friends, Carsten Linnemann, 40, and 32-year old Paul Ziemiak, are collectively referred to as “the wild boys,” a trio of ambitious political upstarts who are pressing forward with a disruptive agenda.
They are not alone. Ms. Merkel has reportedly decided to appoint Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to be the new party secretary, a leading post that in the past has spanned the role of chief spokesman and the party's number two. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, 55, is Saarland's state premier and succeeds Peter Tauber, who is unwell.
Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer — known as AKK in party circles — has often been described as a potential successor to Ms. Merkel and is a supporter and confidante of the chancellor. A survey in late 2017 of CDU members found 45 percent saw Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer as a fitting possible successor to Ms. Merkel. She won more support than other hopefuls, from Julia Klöckner, who received 43 percent, to Mr. Spahn, who won 36 percent. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was supported by 31 percent.
This planned appointment is significant as Ms. Merkel has frequently been criticized as failing to usher in a potential successor. Now, many are asking whether this appointment is a sign, after all, Ms. Merkel herself held the same role in the CDU before becoming chancellor. Some media have called Ms. Krampe-Karrenbauer a "mini Merkel."
But this nomination pits Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer against powerful challengers, chiefly Mr. Spahn, Mr. Linnemann and Mr. Ziemiak, especially as some had hoped Mr. Spahn would take the post that spans party administrator and spokesperson (below Ms. Merkel).
A tight trio, the three politicians nonetheless take different tacks. Mr. Spahn openly rails against the chancellor’s centrist policies, Mr. Linnemann, a lawmaker in the Bundestag who leads the CDU’s pro-business wing, sees himself as a constructive agent of change within the party. Mr. Ziemiak, for his part, chairs the youth wing of the conservative bloc formed by Ms. Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, a post that gives him plenty of space to rail against party heavyweights.
Merkel loyalists are now bracing themselves for tough decisions.
Unlike Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, of the Saar, Mr. Spahn, Mr. Linnemann and Mr. Ziemiak all started their political careers in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. The three men actively supported each other as they advanced within the party since 2013 and have won a handful of successes, sometimes against the wishes of more senior party members. Thanks to this support, Mr. Spahn was elected to the CDU's steering committee in 2015.
Now, amid coalition negotiations, the three politicians are positioning themselves. When Ms. Merkel decided to pass the prized finance ministry to the Social Democrats to pave the way for a new government coalition, they characterized this decision as a problem, even though many party members don't see it as such. But they are pushing for change. And their voices give strength to other dissenting voices within the CDU — though these are rare in a party where loyalty is key —, these protests added more pressure on the chancellor.
And so after a list of potential cabinet appointees in the upcoming government was revealed — featuring exclusively members of the old guard —, Ms. Merkel’s entourage promptly dismissed the leak as fake news. The chancellor said that she would instead announce the picks for her fourth cabinet in person before the party congress on February 26. In making her choices, she said, she wanted to “give opportunities to people who still have their political future ahead of them” or are in the middle of their political careers.
This is where it gets interesting. Ms. Merkel wants to fill three of the six ministerial positions allocated to the CDU with women and until reports on Monday about the appointment of Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer. Alongside AKK, favorites include Ursula von der Leyen, the steadfast defense minister. There's also Annette Widmann-Mauz, a well-qualified candidate as head of the CDU's women's organization and junior health minister in the outgoing cabinet; she could end up heading the ministry.
But like Ms. Kramp-Karrembauer, the other two women are also well into their fifties and not the fresh faces that party members are calling for. Loyalists to Ms. Merkel are now bracing themselves for tough decisions in order to promote youngsters – likely Mr. Spahn. His fans want him to become cabinet minister, whether the brief is health, education or economics.
Beyond fresh faces, the party also needs to find more ways to rejuvenate itself and its agenda. Some lawmakers want a new manifesto though it is unclear who will take on this daunting job now Mr. Tauber won't be taking on the task.
This article was updated at on February 19 at 11am, CET.