German Chancellor Angela Merkel's departure should come as no surprise and many analysts have had their eyes on her possible successor, and somewhat protege, for a while.
Now a number of experts are making the call that Merkel 'loyalist' Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the general secretary of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), will be the country's next leader – maybe as soon as next year.
"We expect Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to succeed Merkel as CDU leader," Citi's economics team led by Christian Schulz said in a note Monday. "(We expect) that elections will be held in the second half of 2019 and that some form of centrist coalition emerges," Schulz said.
Fresh from Chancellor Merkel's announcement last week that she will not stand for re-election as either the party chairwoman in December, or chancellor after the 2021 election, the CDU's main focus is now on a leadership contest for the top job.
Twelve people have put their names into the hat for the leadership but only three are seen with a realistic chance of gaining the post, Health Minster Jens Spahn, former parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
Known as 'AKK' in German political circles, the 56 year old Kramp-Karrenbauer stands out from the bunch as she is seen as Merkel's personal preference for the party leadership and future chancellorship. Merkel nominated Kramp-Karrenbauer to be the CDU's secretary-general in February this year, sending a strong signal that she endorsed the then-chief minister of Saarland State as her successor.
Futhermore, while Spahn and Merz are seen as potential opponents of Merkel, who has said she intends to remain as chancellor until the next election in 2021, Kramp-Karrenbauer is viewed as someone who would stick to the centrist path forged by Merkel. The CDU membership will make a decision at a party conference on December 7-8.
Presenting her candidacy on Wednesday, Kramp-Karrenbauer alluded to her policy perspective saying "this era is ending, and such an era can't be continued indefinitely — but it also can't be reversed," signaling that she would not undo CDU policies introduced by her mentor.
German newspaper Handelsblatt thinks Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has a good chance of gaining the top job, citing her extensive experience in politics.
"Her numerous positions within the party should help her campaign – and her fans span the CDU's youth wing through to focus groups helping families, women, and Catholics," Allison Williams, deputy editor at Handelsblatt Global, said in a newsletter on Tuesday.
"Plus, she's headed ministries from the interior to justice and sport before leading her state. She has also governed at the state level with the Green Party, a valuable experience given a new chancellor may have to lead a coalition with the pro-business FDP liberals and the environmentalist Greens.'
Her one downfall, as Williams pointed out, could be that she is too similar to Merkel and that the public might want a change of course, for better or worse, after 13 years of Merkel.
"Her fans say she's intelligent with a keen sense of irony; to others, she's conservative, lacks fiery rhetoric and is just a Merkel II."
The election of Kramp-Karrenbauer, an ally of Merkel, would bode well for her seeing out her fourth term as chancellor but having a separate CDU leader and chancellor that are able to work together harmoniously, and repair a fractious coalition government – made up of the CDU, its sister Bavarian party the Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- is a challenge.
The CDU faces external threats too amid the rising popularity of both parties on the right (the Alternative for Germany, or AfD) and the left (the Greens) which both performed well in recent regional elections – seen as a harbinger of national sentiment.
"Merkel has admitted that stepping down as party leader is a risk for her as chancellor, even though some past chancellors were not party leaders," J.P. Morgan Economist Greg Fuzesi said in a note on Friday.
"Also, while being an important figurehead, a key role of the CDU party leader is to manage debates on policy priorities at the biannual party conferences. Nevertheless, the new CDU leader certainly could be confrontational with Merkel," he said, adding that this would depend on the next CDU leader's strategy, one "which may take time to work out as the CDU faces the difficult task of winning back support from opposite directions, i.e., from the AfD and Greens."
For now, the CDU is facing an internal battle between pro-Merkel members, "liberal Merkelians" as Carsten Nickel, the deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence put it, and the more traditional, conservative element.
"This is precisely what Merkel might be betting on," Nickel said in a note last week. "If on top of this, her confidante Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer takes over the party, and not Merkel's conservative foes Jens Spahn or Friedrich Merz, this might improve her chances of bringing her chancellorship to an orderly end," he said.