Merkel’s ‘floundering’ CDU braces for stormy party congress

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right CDU braces for a tumultuous two-day party congress in Leipzig from Friday, with members smarting from recent local election drubbings and bickering over her successor.

Merkel's 'floundering' CDU braces for stormy party congress
Merkel speaking in Meseberg, Brandenburg on Monday. Photo: DPA

Here's a look at what's ailing the Christian Democratic Union in the twilight of Merkel's reign.

'Floundering' in the polls?

Although it remains the country's largest political force, recent polls put support for the CDU at 25 percent, just three points ahead of the surging Greens.

The party “is floundering”, the conservative daily Die Welt concluded.

In May's European Parliament elections, the CDU lost more than seven percentage points. It also suffered a black eye in regional elections in three ex-communist eastern German states in recent months, where it faced a fierce challenge from the far-right AfD.

READ ALSO: Far-right AfD second strongest force in Brandenburg and Saxony

The party's decline “can no longer be ignored”, railed senior CDU figure Friedrich Merz, who narrowly lost a bid to become party chief to Merkel's chosen heir, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

AKK: too many blunders?

Less than a year after replacing Merkel as head of the CDU, the woman best known as AKK is no longer considered a shoo-in to become the next chancellor.

A series of high-profile gaffes have left even loyal Merkel backers wondering if the Catholic mum-of-three is up to the top job.

Newly installed as Germany's defence minister, Kramp-Karrenbauer ruffled feathers when she suggested creating an international security zone in northern Syria, apparently without running the idea past fellow cabinet members first.

A bathroom joke about transgender people during a carnival performance backfired badly, while her clumsy response to a popular YouTuber's criticism of the government's climate policies left her looking out of touch.

READ ALSO: Merkel successor slammed over intersex toilet 

An Infratest Dimap survey this month found that just 19 percent of Germans thought AKK would be a good choice for chancellor, compared to 42 percent for Merz.

But it would be premature to pen AKK's political obituary, said professor Hans Vorländer from the technical university of Dresden. “With time those missteps can fade, allowing her to reassert her authority,” he told AFP.

Congress showdown?

“The question of the chancellorship candidate will overshadow everything else in Leipzig,” Der Spiegel weekly wrote.

The CDU's youth wing has already shattered a taboo by demanding a membership vote on who the party's chancellor candidate should be in the next general election, in a blow to Merkel's succession plan.

Seizing the opportunity, Merz has doubled down on his attacks against Merkel by accusing her of a “lack of leadership”. The corporate lawyer plans to take to the stage in Leipzig right after AKK delivers her speech.

READ ALSO: 'I can win back voters': CDU candidate hoping for Merkel's job

Merkel, who won't seek reelection when her fourth term ends in 2021, will open the annual gathering.

While some in the room may be hostile to AKK, Vorländer said “it was far too early” for Merz to stage a coup.

The party's ambitious health minister Jens Spahn hinted as much when he said last week that the endless leadership debates were “annoying” and that the CDU should focus on governing instead.

Finish line in sight?

Merkel's loveless coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats teetered on the brink last year when a spat over tougher immigration rules sent tempers flaring.

But the alliance between the CDU, their Bavarian CSU sister party and the SPD — reluctantly renewed after 2017's inconclusive general election — now appears on firmer footing after they clinched a hard-fought deal on topping up basic pensions.

READ ALSO: Grundrente: Merkel's coalition reaches deal on Germany's pension reform

A positive half-term review of its achievements also makes it more likely the government will see out the remaining two years of its mandate — and avoid early polls that risk pushing exasperated voters in the arms of the far-right or the Greens.

“The parties in power prefer to stay chained to each other in order to survive,” said Vorländer.

A single regional election next year in the city state of Hamburg will give the coalition partners some breathing room and time to prepare for the post-Merkel era, he added.

Spahn said his party “needs a new team… one that bravely and confidently goes its own way and whose reference point can no longer be Angela Merkel.”

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.