The lines are being drawn in a battle for the soul of Germany’s most powerful political party as it prepares to choose a successor to Angela Merkel.
Less than a week after Mrs Merkel announced she was stepping down as leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), it is already clear the race to succeed her will be a struggle for the identity of the party that has ruled Germany for the past 13 years.
There are three serious contenders. On one side are Friedrich Merz, a prominent businessman and old rival of Mrs Merkel’s, and Jens Spahn, the openly gay health minister. Both men want to take the party back to what they say are its conservative roots.
On the other is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party chairman popularly known as “mini-Merkel”, who is the standard-bearer for the centrists who want to preserve the Merkel legacy.
“The CDU needs change and renewal,” Mr Merz said this week as he announced his candidacy. “The CDU needs to be clear about its core brand.”
“I want a new start, for the CDU and for Germany,” Mr Spahn said. “The CDU is the heart of our democracy. We have allowed this heart to lose power. I’m sure, together we can be strong again.”
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer has remained silent so far.
But whoever wins will have to work alongside Mrs Merkel, who says she wants to stay on as chancellor until the end of her current term in 2021.
The CDU has never had a leadership race this competitive. Usually its leaders are agreed by the party elite behind closed doors and then waved through in a ceremonial vote.
Twice before there have been two candidates. But this year there could be as many as six, although only three have a chance of winning, and the party is dusting off its rule-book on run-off votes.
The new leader will be chosen by delegates to the party conference in December, and the candidates are expected to appear at hustings before the various regional associations over the next month.
Mr Merz has been the big surprise of the race so far. A former rival of Mrs Merkel who quit politics in 2009 after losing a power struggle with her, he declared his candidacy within minutes of her announcement that she was stepping down — so fast, in fact, that the CDU is still trying to work out who leaked the news to him.
At 62, Mr Merz’s political career appeared to be over, but he has quickly emerged as the early frontrunner. He was at pains at his press conference to stress that he didn’t want to take the party to the Right. “The CDU must offer all voters of the political centre a reliable home,” he said. But it is the party’s Right wing that has rushed to endorse him, and it is no secret that Mr Merz is seen as a leader who could win back the votes Mrs Merkel lost to the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD).
Famed in Germany for his rapier skills, he is a far more effective media performer than Mrs Merkel. He is a millionaire who spent his years in the political wilderness working in the private sector, notably as a director of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment fund. But his business links could turn off centre-Left parties like the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens when it comes to forging coalitions — a vital skill for any German political leader.
Friedrich Merz, 62, the Back to the future candidate
Mr Merz’s candidacy has been a deeply unwelcome development for Mr Spahn, who has spent the last few years carefully building himself as the champion of the CDU right, only to see the role snatched from him. A month ago, Mr Spahn could have hoped to be the sole candidate on the right, while the field was expected to be more crowded in the centre.
Instead it is the other centrist candidates who have dropped out, leaving the field to Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer while Mr Spahn and Mr Merz jostle for the same space on the right.
Mr Spahn has tried to project himself as the youth candidate, releasing a slick campaign video this week. But the video attracted derision for its abrupt cuts and extreme close-ups, which jarred with Mr Spahn’s wonkish persona.
Mr Spahn has also tried to take on Mrs Merkel’s migrant policy. “The pious request to stop talking about September 2015 [when Mrs Merkel opened Germany’s border] is going nowhere,” he wrote in a guest editorial this week. “We still face an entire city’s worth of disorderly immigration a year. Contrary to reassurances, everything is not back under control.”
But Mr Spahn’s comments earned a rebuke from Armin Laschet, the powerful head of the CDU’s biggest regional association, who could be a kingmaker after announcing he will not stand for the party leadership.
“Its not about a shift to Left or Right. What we need is a bridgebuilder who brings together the different wings of the CDU,” Mr Laschet said.
Jens Spahn, 38, the Next Generation
To make matters worse for Mr Spahn, his mentor, the former finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, is said to be backing Mr Merz, and leaning on his former protege to pull out of the race to avoid splitting the Right-wing vote. But Mr Spahn is reportedly refusing to cooperate, and wants to fight on.
Meanwhile Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer has refused to be drawn into the debate yet. She has been silent all week, apart from a brief Twitter message saying she would launch her leadership campaign next week. Her tactics appear to be straight out of the Merkel playbook: the veteran chancellor is famous for letting her male rivals destroy each other while waiting quietly in the wings.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is no stranger to the tactic: she once compared her electoral tactics to competitive cycling: “Stay in the pack until the final stretch and then move into the overtaking lane”. Despite the early surge for Mr Merz, many believe the leadership is Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s to lose. She was elected party chairman with 99 per cent support earlier this year and remains highly popular within the CDU.
The centrist vote is considerable and she has no rival for it. Her biggest problem is shrugging off the role of the continuity candidate: at a time when the party is looking for a fresh start, the “mini-Merkel” label may prove a hindrance.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, the “Mini-Merkel”