German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s designated successor 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 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.
Mrs Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin that Germany’s long-time leader stood by her decision not to run for a fifth term in 2021, despite the latest development.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement reflects the growing split within the Christian Democrats which was exposed last week in its handling of the election of a governor in the state of Thuringia.
Regional party politicians voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany party to oust the left-wing incumbent, ignoring advice from the Berlin leadership.
The move broke what is widely regarded as a taboo in post-war German politics around co-operating with extremist parties.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is still Germany’s defence minister.
It was unclear how the latest developments would affect Mrs Merkel’s earlier plans for her succession.
A shift to the right in Mrs Merkel’s centre-right party could trigger a break with the junior coalition partners in Germany’s federal government, the centre-left Social Democrats, and increase the chances the country will hold the next general election early.
Among the names currently being bandied around as future party leaders were 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 in the Merkel tradition, Mr Merz has tried to appeal to the conservative wing of the party that has flirted with Alternative for Germany.
A lawyer and former party veteran, Mr Merz was sidelined by Mrs Merkel before she became chancellor in 2005.
The Alternative for Germany party welcomed Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation, as did Germany’s former domestic intelligence chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, a vocal figure on the right of Mrs Merkel’s party since his ousting in 2018.
Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister and a close Merkel ally, said the Christian Democrats were in “an unusually serious situation”.
Current polls have Mrs Merkel’s conservative block holding steady at about 28% support nationally, followed by the left-leaning Greens at about 22%.
Yet the Social Democrats are struggling with only about 14% support, about the same as Alternative for Germany.