BERLIN—German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plan for a smooth retirement collapsed last week when her hand-picked successor unexpectedly resigned, throwing Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, into turmoil. Germany’s most powerful political party is now frantically searching for a new leader, even as it grapples with a broader identity crisis after shedding supporters to both left-leaning and far-right parties.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK as she is widely known in Germany, succeeded Merkel as CDU leader in late 2018 as part of the veteran chancellor’s plan to gradually retire from politics ahead of next year’s general election. Her tenure as party chief has been rocky and littered with gaffes, but Berlin’s political establishment was nonetheless shocked when she announced on Feb. 10 that she would not stand for the chancellorship and would step down as head of the CDU once the party elects her replacement. She will, however, keep her other job as defense minister in Merkel’s Cabinet.
The political earthquake began earlier this month in the tiny eastern state of Thuringia. It had been without a government since a regional election last October, when the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, surged to second place behind the hard-left Die Linke. The leftists were expected to form a minority government, but in a shock move on Feb. 5, CDU members in the regional assembly voted with the AfD to install a new premier from the small, pro-business Free Democratic Party.