Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Who’s Who in the Looming Battle for the Soul of Merkel’s Party

  • Chancellor set to balance conservative, centrist appointments
  • Conservative flag-bearer Spahn could step into cabinet role

Angela Merkel faces a balancing act when she doles out cabinet posts to her Christian Democratic Union, seeking to placate conservative critics while maintaining her centrist approach to policy.

Angela Merkel and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
Photographer: Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

The German chancellor’s decisions, due to be announced this weekend, will mark out her territory in the battle for the soul of her party, a tussle over the country’s direction in areas from Europe to immigration that will play out during her fourth term. 

Six of 15 cabinet-level posts will go to the CDU, with the rest shared between her Bavarian sister party and the Social Democrats, assuming SPD members agree to enter the coalition in a members’s ballot now under way. Merkel’s picks will also determine whether she’ll achieve an orderly transfer of power once she does depart the stage.

She made a surprise opening gambit on Feb. 19 by appointing Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to a key party post, anointing her centrist ally as a potential successor and blunting complaints that she wasn’t preparing for a post-Merkel landscape.

If the chancellor lines up the posts in the right order, “Merkel will have fulfilled the main demands of her critics: to make the CDU younger, more feminine and more conservative,” said Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin’s Free University.

Here are the members of Merkel’s CDU most likely to enter the new cabinet, unless the chancellor drops a surprise:

Top from left to right: Jens Spahn, Ursula von der Leyen, Peter Altmaier. Bottom from left to right: Julia Kloeckner, Annette Widmann-Mauz, Helge Braun.
Photographer: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Jens Spahn, 37

The flag bearer for the party’s right wing, the 37-year-old deputy finance minister has emerged as a key critic of Merkel’s centrism. Spahn’s support has been galvanized by national conservatives in the CDU especially since the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, with many in the faction opposed to Merkel’s initial open-border policy. The debate has involved issues of national identity and conservative values—ones they believe Merkel has betrayed. A key demand now is to install one of their own in the cabinet. Before the election, a post for Spahn in a Merkel government would have been unthinkable. But she may be forced to give in, appointing him as health or education minister as a sop to the right.

Ursula von der Leyen, 59

A CDU stalwart and Merkel ally since her first government in 2005, the German defense minister is likely to keep her job in the new cabinet. Long considered a potential successor to Merkel, her star has faded of late. The trained doctor and mother of seven has failed to make inroads with the party’s conservative old guard—and drawn criticism over her stewardship of Germany’s military. A parliamentary report this week drew a scathing picture of under-equipped parts of the armed forces.

Peter Altmaier, 59

A steadfast loyalist to the chancellor, Altmaier is a polyglot gourmet cook who has taken some of the toughest jobs for Merkel. After she fired her environment minister in 2012, Altmaier was called in. For the past four years he’s toiled inside the chancellery as Merkel’s chief of staff, a high pressure job to coordinate the work of government and also oversaw the refugee crisis. That didn’t stop Merkel from tasking him with writing the CDU’s party manifesto in last year’s election. In recent months, he’s also served as acting Finance Minister. He may take over the Economy Ministry. 

Julia Kloeckner, 45 

Much speculation has swirled around Kloeckner, the CDU leader in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Once the national representative for Germany’s vintners, the “wine queen” has sought a national profile since losing the state election to the Social Democrats in 2016. She’s usually a reliable ally, but tested the anti-Merkel waters during the refugee crisis with a few critical shots at the chancellor’s open-border stance. She could be in line for agriculture.

Annette Widmann-Mauz, 51

A little-known deputy minister since 2009 and the head of the CDU’s lobby group for women’s affairs, Widmann-Mauz may take the top job in the health ministry, thanks to her place of birth and the CDU’s attentiveness to geographic balance. After Wolfgang Schaeuble’s departure from Merkel’s cabinet last year to become president of the lower house of parliament, a spot opens up for somebody from the southwest state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Helge Braun, 45

The former doctor is an inside operator in the CDU. He gained Merkel’s trust when tasked with coordinating assistance during the refugee crisis. He may replace Altmaier as Merkel’s chief of staff, or chancellery minister, where he’ll oversee the upgrade of Germany’s digital economy.

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