BERLIN: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (left), leader of Germany’s conservative CDU party, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pose during a meeting with their party’s leadership yesterday. – AFP

BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party and her plans to stay on until 2021 were plunged into disarray yesterday, after her heir-apparent gave up her leadership ambitions in a deepening crisis over ties between the centre and far right. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), opted out barely a year in the post – a period marked by internal battles over whether to cooperate with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD).

She announced that she was standing down as CDU leader and would not seek to be the party’s candidate for chancellor in next year’s general elections. AKK, as Kramp-Karrenbauer is popularly known, blamed the “unresolved relationship of parts of the CDU with the (far-right) AfD and (far-left) Left party” for her decision, a party source said. “This is an unusually serious situation for the CDU,” said close Merkel ally and Economy Minister Peter Altmaier. “This is about our future as a modern people’s party of the centre.”

While the party has a policy of no cooperation with either far left or far right at a national level, regional CDU lawmakers last week went rogue and voted with MPs from the AfD to oust a far-left state premier in tiny central Thuringia. The breach in the political dam towards the AfD in Thuringia prompted Merkel’s junior partners in the national government, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), to call urgent talks at the weekend about the partnership’s future.

AKK’s departure, the most prominent political head to roll after the Thuringia crisis, was “unsettling,” SPD board member Michael Roth tweeted yesterday. It remains uncertain “whether decent democrats stand together in the battle for democracy and against nationalism,” he added. With the race to the chancellery wide open again, Sueddeutsche Zeitung said the aftershocks could be huge. “It’s very possible that the chancellor’s exit is coming closer,” it wrote.

Broken taboo
Voting alongside the far right breaches one of the fundamental taboos of post-World War II German politics-the refusal of mainstream parties to work with the extremes. AKK’s attempts to impose rigid no-cooperation discipline from Berlin have foundered especially in Germany’s former communist east, where strong showings for the AfD and Left in some states threaten the ability of mainstream parties to form functioning coalition majorities. Germany’s next national elections must take place by autumn next year, although the fractious coalition between the CDU, its Bavarian CSU allies and the centre-left SPD may not hold until then.

By this summer, AKK hopes to have organized a process to find the person to lead the CDU into the next federal campaign. “It is clear that the party leadership and the chancellorship must be held by the same person,” a party source quoted her as saying-an implicit rebuke to Merkel’s 2018 decision to split the offices. The veteran chancellor gave up on the party leadership as a string of regional defeats and the growth of the far right undermined her popularity within her own ranks.

Race to the top
Despite Merkel naming her defense minister last July to lend her the gravitas of federal office, AKK never managed to stamp her authority on the CDU after her hair’s-breadth win over challenger Friedrich Merz. Merkel has been in power since 2005 but said she would not run again for the highest office at the same time she gave up the CDU leadership.

Merz, a former rival of Merkel’s, has been waiting in the wings, and still enjoys strong backing from the pro-business and more conservative wings of the party. Just last week, the former CDU parliamentary leader gave up his job at giant asset manager BlackRock “to support the party more strongly in its renewal and re-enter politics”, he said. Asked to comment on AKK’s retreat yesterday, Merz said: “In a situation like this, smart thinking is more important than commenting quickly.” – AFP