BERLIN — Once the most powerful politician in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted on Monday that she has become a lame duck, setting off a scramble to replace her and deepening the continent’s deficit of high-octane leaders.
The surprise decision reflected growing pressure on the longest-serving head of government in the European Union after a year of setbacks. The battle to succeed her is likely to become a referendum on her reign, with whoever emerges atop the CDU becoming the instant favorite to take over as chancellor.
Merkel’s preferred heir, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, wants to continue in the chancellor’s tradition of moderation and big-tent centrism. But with Germany, and Europe, becoming ever more polarized, challengers are likely to push for the party to tack hard to the right.
Either way, Merkel stepping down will mark a major transition for a continent she has shaped for the past 13 years, through her handling of multiple debt crises, her decisions on nuclear energy and, most of all, her fateful choice to allow more than 1 million asylum seekers to enter Germany.
A vigorous defender of the liberal international order, Merkel has been regarded as a counterweight to Trump-style nationalism — one with the stature to defend free trade, multilateral institutions and the rule of law amid doubts over whether those ideals still matter in Washington. But her slow-motion departure leaves a void.
Her would-be successors are barely known outside Germany. Public support for French President Emmanuel Macron has cratered. Britain’s Theresa May is preoccupied with Brexit.
Europe’s ascendant figures — including Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orban — have more in common with Trump than they do with Merkel.
But by opting to step aside as party chair, Merkel may have given herself at least the chance at a graceful exit, and her party a shot at a managed transition to a fresh face.
“The time has come to open a new chapter,” Merkel, 64, said during a Berlin news conference that, as is typical of her, ran short on sentiment and long on matter-of-fact pronouncements.
Merkel, who said she will retire from politics after her run as chancellor, has been CDU chairman since 2000. In the past, she has said that the chancellor should also be the leader of the ruling party, and that it was dangerous to divide the roles between two people.
But she said Monday that she had changed her mind over the summer as it became clear that “we cannot continue with business as usual.”
“Yes, this is a bit of a risk,” she said. “But having weighed things very, very carefully, it is a risk I want to take.”
Merkel, a scientist-turned-politician who’s known for her sober-minded assessments, may have had little choice.
Until last fall, Merkel was the unquestionably dominant figure in German politics, having won three straight elections and seemingly on cruise control in a fourth.
But the vote in September 2017 delivered an unexpectedly poor finish for the CDU, and the chancellor’s hold on power has never been the same since.
Her government — a so-called grand coalition — has been an unhappy and dysfunctional constellation of rivals, with both the center-left Social Democrats and the CDU’s Bavarian sister party threatening to bolt.
At the same time, discontent was rising within the ranks of the CDU, as the party bled support in regional votes and national polls to challengers on its right — the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — and its left, the Greens.
“The internal pressure was getting too strong,” said Jan Techau, director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “There was an overwhelming sense in the party that some freshness was needed.”
Thomas Heilmann, a CDU member of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, said the party’s elected officials were relieved by Merkel’s choice.
“It will give us the opportunity to have a very natural relaunch, which was definitely necessary,” said Heilmann, who represents Berlin.
“I’m very loyal to her. She’s earned it,” he said. “But that loyalty doesn’t keep me from seeing the reality, and the reality is that her results are not as good as they used to be.”
Merkel said she made her decision over the summer, but recent events likely solidified it.
On Sunday, the party suffered steep losses in elections in the state of Hesse, home to Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital, and long a bellwether for the nation. Although the party placed first and will continue to govern the state, the CDU’s performance was its worst in more than half a century. Merkel on Monday described the results as “bitter” and “disappointing.”
Just two weeks ago, the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, sustained a similar erosion of support in its home state of Bavaria.
Merkel’s announcement set off a flurry of speculation in the German media over who would follow her as chancellor.
Merkel had long resisted grooming a successor, and she did not endorse a candidate on Monday. But earlier this year, she appeared to have given her blessing to Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, the onetime leader of the western state of Saarland and now the CDU’s general secretary. Known as “mini Merkel,” Kramp-Karrenbauer would represent a vote for continuity in both policy and style.
But the conservative wing of the CDU is also expected to mount a challenge. Health Minister Jens Spahn, 38, and Friedrich Merz, 62, a former parliamentary leader of the CDU, were named Monday in German news reports as candidates.
Spahn, in particular, has been an outspoken critic of Merkel and has advocated that the party move further right on immigration to win back supporters who defected to the far-right AfD. He will try to draw support from CDU members frustrated with Merkel’s more centrist tendencies, including backing a minimum wage and a ban on nuclear power.
“She has moved the CDU decidedly to the left, and that has built up resentment against her from day one,” Techau said.
The candidates will have little time to make their case: The CDU will select its new chair in early December at a party conference in the northern city of Hamburg.
Before Monday’s announcement, Merkel had been widely expected to run for reelection as party leader, though there were already signs of restlessness with her rule.
Last month, Volker Kauder, Merkel’s longtime floor leader in the German parliament, was unexpectedly defeated in an internal party vote. The loss for the longtime Merkel confidant marked a rare moment when the CDU’s elected officials have defied the chancellor’s will.
But, overall, the CDU had remained relatively united behind Merkel, and there was little glee on Monday at her political demise. Rather, there was gratitude that she may have a chance to leave on something resembling her own terms.
“She knows that this isn’t an easy situation,” said Anja Karliczek, Merkel’s education minister. “But she wants to send the signal that renewal takes precedence. We’re heading into a new future.”
Luisa Beck and Rick Noack contributed to this report.