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Germany's largest and dominant political party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is holding a crucial vote to elect a new leader this coming weekend after Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would not run for the post and effectively started to wind down her political career.
There are two main contenders for the party leadership but this vote, taking place at the party's Annual Congress in Hamburg on December 7-8, has larger significance in that the winner could become Germany's next chancellor.
Merkel said in October that she would not be running for re-election of chairwoman of the ruling conservative CDU back in October. She also confirmed that this, her fourth term, would be her last and she would not be seeking any political post after 2021.
Her announcement opened a leadership race for both the CDU and the ultimate prize (and responsibility) — leading Europe's largest economy and most influential political entity.
There are actually twelve candidates for the party leadership but some candidates are more prominent, and popular, than others.
In essence, there are three main candidates for the role — Merkel's protegee Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (known colloquially as AKK), her conservative rival Friedrich Merz who used to be party whip (an enforcer of the party line during legislative votes), and Health Minister Jens Spahn.
The race is tighter between Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz and these are seen as the frontrunners according to informal polls in which, generally, only a portion of the 1,001 delegates that are eligible to vote have voiced their voting intentions.
In a litmus test of delegates on December 1 by newspaper Bild Am Sonntag, only 269 said who they would vote for, the rest being undecided or not wanting to say. Of those happy to state their voting intentions, 144 were in favor of Merz, 96 for Kramp-Karrenbauer and 29 votes were for Spahn.
Most undecided delegates are vacillating between Merz and Kramp-Karrenbauer; the former is seen to be more popular with party members, however Kramp-Karrenbauer is seen as more popular with the public. Merz's candidacy got an unexpected boost Tuesday when Merkel's former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble publicly backed him.
The vote boils down to whether the party votes for continuity or radical change. Kramp-Karrenbauer is the CDU's general secretary and a former minister-president of the state of Saarland, she is seen as a pragmatist of the Merkel variety. Under Merz or Spahn, the party is expected to move more toward the political right wing.
In debates leading up to the vote Friday, Merz has said the party needed to take "clear positions" and be ready "to lead controversial debates" in its politics, subtly criticizing Merkel's more compromising approach, and her policy on thorny issues like immigration. Showing her "Merkellian" influence, Kramp-Karrenbauer has said there is a need for "constructive debate" in politics.
"Only one thing is for sure," ING's Chief Economist Carsten Brzeski noted on Wednesday, "the outcome of the Friday vote is highly unpredictable."
"Party congresses can develop own characters and momentum. Also, it looks as if no candidate will manage to gain an absolute majority in a first round. This could make Jens Spahn, or better his supporters, the kingmaker(s)."
The divide that's represented by both candidates is a challenge for the CDU which has lost voters to both the left and right. It is also struggling to manage a fractious coalition government alongside its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
The CDU, as well as other parties, have come under pressure from the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has been gaining in popularity. The CDU and CSU also fared badly in recent regional elections against the Green party.
Being able to unite the party, and appease CDU voters, will be a key challenge and priority for the party's next leader, one analyst noted.
"The CDU might, in fact, judge its new leader's ultimate readiness for the chancellery by their ability to combine internal compromise with an integrated offer to voters," according to Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence.
There is talk that the next party leader could try to oust Merkel — effectively something of a lame duck ahead of the end of her term — before 2021. If that happened, the probability of a snap election would increase substantially. This could endanger the whole coalition government.
"The result of ousting Merkel might hence well be new elections — and great difficulties for the CDU to utilize traditional center-right arguments such as reliability and stability," Nickel noted.
If Merz ousted Merkel, it is almost certain that the SPD would pull the plug on the coalition, the analyst continued, as "his socially conservative and economically liberal credentials make him a red flag for the SPD."
Meanwhile, Kramp-Karrenbauer might be even more damaging to the SPD given her greater appeal at the political center, but her less-divisive personality would probably make her more bearable as chancellor to the SPD, Nickel noted.