Germany’s conservatives have fired the starting gun in the race to succeed Angela Merkel, as two more candidates launched their campaign to lead the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The empty chair at the top of the country’s biggest and most powerful party is due to be filled at a special party gathering in Berlin on 25 April, after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, CDU leader and Merkel’s heir apparent, announced her intention to resign this month.
Barring any surprise candidacies, delegates will choose between Armin Laschet, the centrist state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia and closest to a Merkel continuity candidate, the veteran rightwinger Friedrich Merz, and Norbert Röttgen, a foreign policy expert.
Jens Spahn, 39, the ambitious health minister, announced last Wednesday that he would not run for the party leadership but would support Laschet.
“The CDU is bigger than either one of us; this is about the future of our country and the CDU,” said Spahn, who would likely rise to become deputy chair if Laschet won.
He added it was time to put past differences behind them and build bridges between the liberal and conservative wings of the party, which has governed Germany since 2005.
Laschet said Germany was living in a new climate of fear, citing terror attacks in Hanau last week and Halle last October, and that the central mission of the CDU under his leadership would be to address such fears, also in the country’s Jewish and migrant communities.
Merz, who was the party’s parliamentary leader until being ousted by Merkel in 2002, announced his candidacy just an hour after Laschet, at the same venue on Tuesday.
Merz, 64, launched his campaign with a swipe against his competitor, saying the alternative he offered to party members was one “between continuity and a fresh start and renewal”.
He has repeatedly said he would make it his mission to win back previous CDU supporters who had left the party in protest against Merkel’s centrist course, and has made it his mission to “halve” support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland as a result.
Röttgen, who has previously tried and failed to become the state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia and was sacked by Merkel from her cabinet as a result, announced his candidacy last week. In a tweet sent on Tuesday morning, he said he would run with a female deputy.
All three candidates to succeed Merkel are male and hail from North-Rhine Westphalia.