In Summary
  • Merkel has led Germany since 2005, and moved the party and country steadily toward the political centre.

  • More generous family leave, an exit from nuclear power and an end to military conscription were among her signature policies.

HAMBURG,

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hand off leadership of her party Friday after nearly two decades at the helm, with the race wide open between a loyal deputy and a long-time rival.

The contest's outcome is expected to be crucial in deciding whether Merkel, Europe's most influential leader, can realise her stated goal of completing her fourth term in 2021 and then leaving politics.

Merkel, 64, is quitting the helm of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) after a series of poll setbacks rooted in controversy over her liberal refugee policy.

"I'm very grateful that I could be party chairwoman for 18 years — it is a very, very long time and the CDU of course had its ups and downs," Merkel said as she arrived at the conference venue in Hamburg.

"But we won four national elections together... and I am happy I can remain chancellor."

MERKEL LEGACY

Merkel has led Germany since 2005, and moved the party and country steadily toward the political centre.

More generous family leave, an exit from nuclear power and an end to military conscription were among her signature policies.

The two main candidates, CDU deputy leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (known as AKK) and corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz, are locked in a battle over whether to embrace or break with the veteran chancellor's legacy.

A third contender, Health Minister Jens Spahn, 38, an outspoken critic of Merkel's 2015 decision to welcome more than one million asylum seekers to Germany, is seen as being in a distant third place.

POTENTIAL SUCCESSORS

While AKK, 56, is viewed as a keeper of the flame and similar to Merkel with an even temper and middle-of-the-road policies, Merz, 63, has become the torchbearer for those seeking a more decisive break with the chancellor.

"The Merkel era is palpably coming to an end," political journalist and AKK biographer Kristina Dunz said. "Merz could be tempted to see his revenge and lunge for power (as soon as next year)."

This week Merz, who has insisted in the face of widespread scepticism that he could work well with Merkel, won the backing of powerful former finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, now the parliamentary speaker.

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