BERLIN — German politics is a realm where predictability is prized. But when the grandees and the grunts of Germany’s dominant postwar party gather in Hamburg on Friday, they will face an uncertainty unknown for the past 18 years.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will elect its first new chief since a 45-year-old east German physicist named Angela Merkel took charge in 2000. The choice is between a close Merkel ally who wants to carry on with the big-tent centrism the chancellor has long championed and a longtime rival who aims to steer the party back to the right.
Whoever wins becomes the favorite to take over as Germany’s next leader, with the opportunity to shape Europe’s primo political and economic player for years to come.
That means that while Merkel is nowhere on the ballot in Friday’s vote, she has everything at stake.
“It’s about her legacy,” said Robin Alexander, a German author and journalist who has written extensively on the chancellor. “If Merz wins, it means the CDU wants something new. If AKK wins, they want to continue and still value her. Merkel is heavily invested in AKK.”
Merz is Friedrich Merz, a 63-year-old corporate lawyer who has been out of politics for nearly a decade after being unceremoniously sidelined early in Merkel’s reign.
AKK is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a quietly effective 56-year-old politician whom Merkel tapped to be CDU general secretary this year after a long tenure leading the tiny west German state of Saarland.
In addition to being a stylistic soul mate, Kramp-Karrenbauer would give Merkel the chance at a graceful exit from the chancellery.
Merkel has said she intends to govern until her term is up in 2021, and the selection of Kramp-Karrenbauer would make that at least a possibility.
A hastier departure is likely should the CDU go with Merz. Not only would the vote signal a repudiation of Merkel, but it would also create an unwieldy dynamic in which two people who are known not to get along sit together atop the German political world.
Polls show Kramp-Karrenbauer is better liked than Merz among CDU voters and the public at large.
But Merz has received a notably more enthusiastic response at town-hall-style meetings held across the country in the weeks since Merkel stunned the German political world by announcing she would step aside as party chair.
Ultimately, the choice is up to the 1,001 delegates who convene Friday in Hamburg, a mix of party elders and local officeholders who will make a decision with consequences for 83 million Germans.
The party’s choice mirrors one faced by center-right parties across Europe as they attempt to adapt to a surging far right.
In countries such as Austria, France and Britain, the traditional conservative heavyweights have adopted much of the rhetoric and positioning of their populist rivals.
The strategy has succeeded in some places and failed spectacularly elsewhere.
Merkel, while toughening her stance on immigration, has largely declined to try to beat the far right by matching its approach to politics.
She refuses to cooperate with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) and continues to defend the decision that more than any other made her a pariah among the insurgent party’s followers: her 2015 choice to keep German borders open amid an unparalleled influx of asylum seekers.
That stance has won her plaudits as a beacon of tolerance and humanitarianism who is prepared to face down a rising tide of populism in defense of Western values. But it has also earned her scorn from not only the AfD but also some within her own party who feel the CDU has strayed too far to the center — or even the left — under her leadership.
Most of those disaffected CDU voters are pinning their hopes on Merz.
During his years in the political wilderness, as he grew wealthy in the business world, he was known to be critical of Merkel’s inclination to stray from conservative stands. That tendency included not only her handling of refugees but also the introduction of a minimum wage, an end to nuclear power and a bolstering of the social welfare system.
As a candidate, Merz has been careful not to portray himself as a zealous adversary of Merkel’s, mindful that she still enjoys wide appreciation in the party for her 13-year run as chancellor.
But he has done just enough to signal that he would take the CDU — and perhaps Germany — in a different direction.
Merz has second-guessed Merkel’s response to the 2015 crisis, saying he would have allowed an initial batch of asylum seekers to enter but then moved quickly to seal the border.
Experts doubt whether that would have been feasible, given the volume of people entering the continent and the lack of internal border controls in Europe.
Merz also has questioned the fundamental right to asylum, although he later had to walk those comments back amid criticism that his suggestion was unconstitutional.
Perhaps most appealing to his fans is his boast that he can cut support for the AfD in half and bring the CDU’s share of the vote back up to 40 percent.
The party won just 33 percent in elections last year and has fallen to the high 20s in recent polls as the AfD has climbed to around 15. Merz recently accused his party of accepting the AfD’s rise “with a shrug of the shoulders.”
“A decisive topic will be who can win back voters, and I think many have hopes that Merz can provide the answer,” said Wolfgang Fischer, the CDU mayor of the west German town of Olsberg and a longtime friend of Merz’s.
But the CDU has lost voters not only to the right. Centrist and progressive voters have also abandoned the party, prompting a surge for the environmentalist Greens.
That’s one reason that many in the CDU are wary of a lurch to the right and favor a less-polarizing candidate.
Much like Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer is known as a moderate consensus-builder who eschews ideology in favor of pragmatism.
She, like the chancellor, has encouraged the country to move on from an endless debate over decisions made in 2015.
The similarities have now earned her the moniker “mini-Merkel.”
“AKK can better unite the party,” said Herbert Reul, the CDU interior minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. “Her personality isn’t confrontational. She’s a mediator and doesn’t just defend one particular position but is open.”
If Kramp-Karrenbauer reminds Merkel of herself, Merz may more closely resemble some of the big-personality foreign leaders the chancellor has grown accustomed to jousting with.
“Merz is the kind of man that Merkel doesn’t like to have around her,” said Margaret Heckel, who has written a book on the chancellor’s leadership style. “If you look at her team, you don’t find pushy alpha males.”
And yet the alpha male is in vogue worldwide, whether in Russia, Turkey or the United States.
Merz is certainly no President Vladimir Putin, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or President Trump.
But he would be, at the very least, a nod in that direction after years in which Germany has stood defiantly apart.
He would also be a throwback to an earlier era, one before Merkel’s 18 years modernized the CDU and transformed it from the older, more male and more traditional party it long had been.
“He’s a character from the 1990s,” said Alexander, the author, who is chief correspondent at the right-leaning Die Welt newspaper. “Merz may mean something new. But funnily enough, that something new would be something old.”