German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s heir apparent has unexpectedly thrown in the towel, 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 (CDU) that she will not be seeking the chancellorship in next year’s election, upending Mrs Merkel’s plans to hand her the reins after more than 15 years in power.
The announcement follows days of in-fighting within the party over its handling last week of the election of a governor in the state of Thuringia.
Regional party politicians there voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) to oust the left-wing incumbent, defying appeals from Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer and further undermining her leadership.
If it's up to me, it won't have any effect on the stability of the grand coalitionAnnegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
The vote in Thuringia broke what is widely regarded as a taboo in post-war German politics around co-operating with extremist parties.
“The AfD stands against everything we as the CDU represent,” Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters in Berlin.
“Any convergence with AfD weakens the CDU.”
She likewise ruled out any co-operation with the Left party of former Thuringia governor Bodo Ramelow, who headed the former East German state from 2014 until last week.
She will remain as Germany’s defence minister.
Mrs Merkel has said she will not run for a fifth term in Germany’s next general election, which is now scheduled for autumn 2021.
But any shift to the right in Mrs Merkel’s party could trigger a breakup of her federal coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats and increase the chances of an early national election.
“If it’s up to me, it won’t have any effect on the stability of the grand coalition,” Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer said after announcing her planned withdrawal.
But leading figures in Mrs Merkel’s party expressed concerns about fallout from the announcement.
Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister and a close Merkel ally, said the Christian Democrats were in “an unusually serious situation”.
Recent polls had Mrs Merkel’s conservative block at about 28% support nationally, followed by the left-leaning Greens at about 22%.
The Social Democrats are struggling with only about 14% support, about the same as AfD.
Among the names currently being bandied around as future CDU party leaders are health minister Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz, who were beaten to the leadership by Ms 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 Mr Spahn and Mr Laschet are considered centrists, Mr Merz has tried to appeal to the conservative wing of the party that has flirted with AfD.
A lawyer once tipped to lead the party in the early 2000s, Mr Merz was sidelined by Mrs Merkel before she became chancellor in 2005.
Bavarian governor Markus Soeder, the leader of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian-only sister party to Mrs Merkel’s CDU, is also the focus of some speculation.
Mrs Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin that she stood by her decision not to run for a fifth term in 2021, despite the latest development.
The AfD party welcomed Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation, as did Germany’s former domestic intelligence head Hans-Georg Maassen, a vocal figure on the right of Mrs Merkel’s party since his ousting as Germany’s spy chief in 2018.
Alternative for Germany 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 AfD.
The far-right party has successfully wielded populist tactics, emphasising national self-interest and immigration controls while tolerating anti-Semitism and historical revisionism among its members.
Alternative for Germany’s leader in the state of Thuringia, Bjoern Hoecke, has in the past marched alongside far-right extremists and called for a “180-turn” in the way the country commemorates its Nazi past.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer insisted that any Christian Democrats who believe their party can find common ground with AfD should ask themselves “whether they can remain members of the CDU”.