Merkel Role in Heir’s Exit Puts Her at Center of German Turmoil

(Bloomberg) -- After Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plane touched down in Berlin on Saturday from a long-haul flight, the veteran leader of many a crisis wasted little time taking control of an emergency at home.

She helped avert the meltdown of the euro, navigated an influx of refugees and handled the tricky personality of Donald Trump. How she deals with the German political vortex left by the sudden resignation of her heir apparent may be the final test of her crisis-management skills.

The legacy of the “Teflon chancellor” is at stake, and the root of the problem runs deep.

Before returning to Germany, Merkel determined she needed to take charge of efforts by her Christian Democratic Union to deal with a firestorm over a state chapter’s dalliance with the far right. She signaled to associates that she was aware of the damage done to her hand-picked successor’s authority by events in Thuringia, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Merkel Role in Heir’s Exit Puts Her at Center of German Turmoil

Shortly after landing at around 6 a.m. at the military terminal at Berlin’s Tegel airport, Merkel shifted into action. She axed her top liaison for the eastern German states, who had applauded the contentious election in Thuringia that sparked the turmoil.

Then in the sprawling glass-and-cement compound of the chancellery, she averted the threat to break up her government by the Social Democrats, her junior partner.

After an emergency meeting of the coalition parties starting at 1 p.m., they issued a statement demanding that Thuringia’s rogue state leader step down. Echoing words Merkel uttered during her trip to Africa, they said the appointment of the Free Democrats’ Thomas Kemmerich was enabled by the “unforgivable” cooperation with the right-wing Alternative for Germany.

Almost simultaneously, he tweeted his resignation.

In the span of a few hours, Merkel put on display the qualities that have kept her in charge of Europe’s largest economy for more than 14 years. But in the process, she undercut Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, her former protege.

The CDU leader -- known by her initials AKK -- was reduced to calling the party’s top officials to gauge their support, according to a person close to the events. After a cool reception, she announced her resignation as chairwoman less than 48 hours after Merkel’s damage control.

Merkel Role in Heir’s Exit Puts Her at Center of German Turmoil

“It makes logical sense to speculate whether the next CDU hopeful has to insist on a quick Merkel retreat,” said Carsten Nickel, managing director of consultancy Teneo. “AKK’s fate will be a warning sign for whoever succeeds her.”

When the CDU chief informed the party’s inner circle of her sudden resignation -- after little more than a year in charge of the party that has governed Germany for much of its post-war history -- the reaction was a wall of silence that lasted for nearly a minute, according to people familiar with the meeting.

In a press conference later on Monday, AKK indirectly blamed Merkel for her fall, saying the experiment of separating the chancellorship from party leadership, which Merkel proposed, had proved to be a failure.

“The open question around the chancellery candidacy weakens the CDU in a political moment in Germany that requires a strong CDU,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Monday.

The messy exit now risks snapping back on Merkel. Without AKK serving as the buffer for domestic feuding, ire over the CDU’s fading support amid Germany’s increasingly fractious political landscape will be directed at Merkel.

A growing chorus of conservative lawmakers are demanding a speedier search for a CDU leader, who would almost certainly be the party’s next chancellor candidate. While it would be difficult to push Merkel out, the pressure will intensify as the party moves ahead with personnel decisions.

Merkel Role in Heir’s Exit Puts Her at Center of German Turmoil

Two contenders, including Merkel’s arch-nemesis Friedrich Merz, have already signaled interest in her job.

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The situation limits Merkel’s room to maneuver and risks souring her legacy as she seeks to hang on until her terms ends in 2021. That could be a blow to European peers who rely on her leadership.

“For Europe, Angela Merkel is very important,” Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in an interview in Lisbon. “Her experience and her open mind are very important for Europe in this moment when we are discussing a lot about the future of Europe.”

The search for a successor, which Merkel plans to involve herself in, will mark a do-over of the contest that Kramp-Karrenbauer won in December 2018.

At the time, Merkel pushed the former premier of Saarland to defend her centrist approach from right-wing factions in the party. But after a series of gaffes and poor election results as the party lost support to the anti-immigrant AfD and environmentalist Greens, AKK had been on the ropes for months.

Her lack of authority was on full display during an emergency trip to Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia. She wanted state legislators to agree to new elections as way to clear the slate for defying her orders by allying with the AfD.

Emotions were running raw as the meeting stretched into the wee hours of Friday. Despite her efforts, the state lawmakers rebuffed her over fears of putting their jobs on the line for party principle, according to people familiar with the events.

During a late-night press statement, her strain was on full display, with her voice cracking just before rushing off for the long drive back to Berlin, returning empty handed and with the clock ticking on her brief stint at the pinnacle of German politics.

As has been the case since 2005, the spotlight will now be focused squarely back on Merkel.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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