BERLIN — After 18 years under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, delegates of Germany’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, plan to gather in Hamburg on Friday to elect a new leader who will shape the future of the party and the country, where it remains the strongest political force.
Over the past month, the three main candidates have crisscrossed Germany, presenting themselves and their visions for the party to eight lively regional conferences so crowded that they often had to be moved to larger venues. Some 14,000 members attended, while the events were streamed live to an additional 200,000 people.
It was an unusually transparent and democratic process for a party that has historically chosen its leaders in back-room deals, with the delegates’ vote rendered little more than a formality by one-candidate ballots. And it comes at a time when the Christian Democrats are struggling to retain their status as Germany’s main big-tent party.
Who is running?
Three leading candidates made the rounds at the regional conferences, but recent polling has showed a close contest between two of them, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Friedrich Merz. Each represents a different vision for a party seeking to reaffirm its conservative credentials and win back voters who defected to the left and the far-right in last year’s inconclusive parliamentary elections.
Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, who is frequently referred to by her initials, A.K.K., sought to move from the shadow of Ms. Merkel, to whom she is often compared, by taking a harder line toward migration and emphasizing the conservatives’ Christian roots.
She also played up her more than three decades of service in the party, which included a stint as interior minister and more than six years governing the tiny state of Saarland — proof, she said, that she can win elections. She stressed cohesiveness as crucial to the party’s success. “We will only reach that strength if we hold together,” she said.
Recent polls have shown that Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer is favored by the German public and several leading conservative party members. But it was Mr. Merz who brought crowds to their feet in the important states of Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia.
A former rival of Ms. Merkel who quit politics in 2009 to become a millionaire in the world of finance, Mr. Merz shines at the podium with broad visionary statements about strengthening small and midsize companies and halving the strength of the populist Alternative for Germany party. “We can and we must stop this trend and turn it around,” he said.
But his suggestions to change German laws on refugees, which are anchored in the Constitution, and to use the stock market to shore up pension funds raised questions about the 63-year-old, who is backed by Wolfgang Schäuble, former finance minister and godfather of the conservative party.
The third candidate, Jens Spahn, the health minister in Ms. Merkel’s government, failed to inspire party members with his appeal to allow the younger generation to take over. At just 38, he said he was told by many that he was “very young” and would have a chance in the future.
What does it mean for Merkel?
Mr. Merkel has said that, regardless of who wins the party leadership, she intends to serve as chancellor until 2021, when her current term expires. Both Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer and Mr. Merz expressed support for that idea on the campaign trail.
But that scenario seems far more likely if Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, whom the chancellor lifted from regional politics into a key party position last year, takes the helm of the party. She is widely seen as Ms. Merkel’s chosen successor, and the two women have shown they are able to work together during Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s brief tenure as the party’s general secretary.
Under the leadership of Mr. Merz, there are various options for how Ms. Merkel’s political career could end. The lobbyist and businessman has held a long-simmering animosity toward the chancellor since she ousted him as floor leader in 2002. Ms. Merkel’s governing partners, the Social Democrats, already suffering for their decision to enter into a third coalition with the conservatives, widely view Mr. Merz as too market-oriented and conservative. There are fears they could quit the government, triggering new elections.
What will it mean for the party?
The conservatives consider themselves Germany’s “chancellor party,” having governed for 20 of the past 69 years. They would like to keep it that way. Whichever candidate is chosen will be expected to help restore the party’s broad appeal to voters from all walks of society.
Germany’s political spectrum is fragmenting, and recent elections saw the conservatives lose support to both the populist Alternative for Germany on the far right and the Greens on the left. The conservatives — including their Bavarian partners — have seen their popularity sag to just 27 percent in recent polls, far from the 38 percent they were drawing in the spring of 2017.
Regardless of who wins, the new leader will bring a shift of cultural attitudes, given that all three are Roman Catholics from western Germany — the opposite of Ms. Merkel, who is a Lutheran from eastern Germany, said Paul Nolte, a professor of history at the Free University in Berlin. “The pendulum is swinging back,” he said.
Who is voting, and what is the procedure?
The 1,001 delegates voting by secret ballot represent a cross-section of the party, from governors and members of Parliament to municipal representatives. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, the two top contenders advance to a runoff.
Friday’s vote is for the party leader, but the delegates will have an eye on who could win support from the broader public in the next general election. So although German voters don’t have a direct say, public opinion matters, said Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, a research institute based in Brussels.
“The next chair of Christian Democrats is not necessarily the next German chancellor,” Mr. Wolff said. “We don’t live in China. If he or she wants to be chancellor, they will need to be nominated as a chancellor candidate and then would have to be elected.”