Angela Merkel has not yet formally begun her fourth term as Germany’s chancellor — but already many in her party are openly sketching out a post-Merkel era.
The chancellor is facing a massive internal backlash over the coalition deal she negotiated with the Social Democrats last week, and in particular the decision to give them the finance ministry — long a CDU bastion.
Suddenly, conservative Christian Democrats are saying the unsayable: that the party must consider a replacement for Ms Merkel, the woman who has led Germany for 12 years and her party for 18 — and the sooner the better.
“We in the CDU must start thinking right now about a new line-up — without Merkel,” said Klaus-Peter Willsch, a Christian Democrat MP.
Mr Willsch has long been a critic but others, too, are making the same point, if a little more diplomatically. “The party needs to be ‘rejuvenated’,” Daniel Günther, a rising CDU star, told German radio. “We need new faces … new, talented young people.”
Those new faces might soon have their chance. Later this month, Ms Merkel will reveal the names of the five CDU ministers likely to take their place in the new cabinet. Mr Günther and others want her to seize the opportunity to promote young politicians — people who might one day be seen as her potential successors.
“This would be a first step towards an organised transition of power,” said Daniel Hackenjos, head of a CDU business organisation in the big southern state of Baden-Württemberg. “It’s now the time for her do this. We need action.”
One likely candidate, he said, is Jens Spahn, a deputy finance minister who is seen as the standard-bearer of the right in the CDU. Promoting him to his own ministry would, said Mr Hackenjos, be a “step in the right direction”.
Yet it is not clear if even that would be enough to appease Ms Merkel’s harshest critics. The anger at the chancellor has been building up for years, said Armin Schuster, a CDU MP. “Now it’s reached a point where the soul of the party is just boiling over,” he said.
For people like Mr Schuster, the list of grievances is long and getting longer. It begins with Ms Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in more than a million refugees. Then came last September’s election, when the CDU, together with its Bavarian sister party the CSU, suffered their worst result since 1949 and the far-right populist Alternative for Germany stormed into the Bundestag for the first time — a landmark event that many disgruntled Christian Democrats laid at Ms Merkel’s door.
Things have not improved since then. Coalition talks with the Greens and liberal Free Democrats collapsed in November, and when the CDU/CSU finally clinched a deal with the SPD last week, Ms Merkel was immediately accused of making too many concessions to her left-of-centre rivals. That initial impression was borne out by a study of the deal by Thingsthinking, an AI firm in Karlsruhe, which found that 70 per cent of the agreement came straight out of the SPD’s election manifesto.
“The mood in the party is that we were betrayed and sold out,” said one senior CDU MP. “The grassroots feel the party leadership totally let them down, that they gave away the farm just to stay in power.”
Ms Merkel says she is heeding the calls for renewal. In an interview with German TV channel ZDF on Sunday, she said she wanted to “give people who still have their political future before them … a chance”.
“We will have to ensure we don’t just consider the over-60s, but also the younger ones,” she said of the new cabinet.
A list of future ministers will be presented to the party conference on February 26, when delegates will vote on the coalition deal, she said, acceding to a demand of her critics.
But she also struck a note of defiance. She would serve for a full four-year term as chancellor, she said, and hinted that she could rule as head of a minority government were SPD members to reject the coalition agreement in a party vote and refuse to enter a grand coalition.
Even her allies are talking openly about the post-Merkel era. Speaking on German radio on Monday, Günther Oettinger, the EU commissioner, said it was “clear to everyone” that Ms Merkel was entering her last term. He said she was too “smart and experienced” to repeat the mistakes of previous leaders such as Helmut Kohl, but will “over the next four years initiate the succession”.
The pressure could build on her to act sooner. Roland Koch, a CDU grandee and former prime minister of the state of Hesse, urged Ms Merkel to think now about a successor: “The party leadership, and its head Angela Merkel, owe voters an answer to the question: ‘Which is the next generation who will take over responsibility?’”