BERLIN—The era of Angela Merkel was clearly coming to an end a week ago, and Wolfgang Schäuble was prepared to jump in. An elder statesman and veteran of German political battles, he had been secretly developing a succession plan, typical of changes-of-guard in the ruling party.
Then last Monday, Ms. Merkel dragged the party’s succession process into the light for the first time in decades.
By taking herself out of the running for her post as party chairwoman, she pulled the rug out from under the small group of men engineering the post-Merkel era, and cued up a rare public race for her crown—an open contest that looks set to redraw the political contours of the country and Europe in ways few anticipated.
Ms. Merkel had managed to pull off one late coup even in her moment of weakness, with a maneuver that leaves her with more control of the outcome—and of the terms of her departure—than if she had left the succession to her party.
Mr. Schäuble, speaker of the Bundestag, parliament’s lower house, had spent weeks working on a transition plan, anticipating a trouncing for his and Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union at a regional electionon Sunday, Oct. 28. He had coached an old rival of Ms. Merkel’s and rallied supporters in a bid to replace her atop the conservative party she had chaired for almost two decades.
Wolfgang Schäuble glancing at Ms. Merkel last month during a service in the Berlin Cathedral on German Day of Unity. PHOTO: FELIPE TRUEBA/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
Critics of Ms. Merkel in CDU leadership were planning to confront her by Sunday, Nov. 4, with their plan for her to surrender the reins, and they were expecting resistance, according to several people familiar with the plan.
Ms. Merkel was quicker. On Monday, hours after the last Hesse ballots were counted, leaving the CDU with its worst-ever score in the state, she told the party’s assembled leaders in Berlin she would remain chancellor but not run for the party’s chair in December.
In Germany, the chancellor leads the government. Most, including Ms. Merkel, have also headed their parties, taking authority over both state matters and their political troops. In rare cases where the roles have been split, power battles have almost always ensued, undermining the chancellor.
For decades, CDU-chairman successions have been the stuff of backroom deals. Only once in postwar history have two credible contenders publicly jostled for the chair, in 1971.
Ms. Merkel’s announcement surprised even many of her close lieutenants. Several European Union leaders, anxious about the prospect of political turmoil, flooded Ms. Merkel and her staff with inquiries about her plans, said a person familiar with the communications. Among them was French President Emmanuel Macron.
Almost immediately after Ms. Merkel’s announcement, three candidates had thrown their hats into the ring. Barring any upset—if one pulls out, say, to support another—they will square off during a ballot of 1,001 party delegates during the CDU’s annual convention in Hamburg on Dec. 7 and 8. They have four weeks to persuade CDU electors they can stop the group from hemorrhaging voters and reclaim its position as Germany’s party of power.
The candidates must lay out plans to tackle the issue that has fractured the country, how to deal with nearly two million immigrants who arrived after Ms. Merkel’s 2015 decision to open borders. They must answer pressing questions such as how to fix the flawed architecture of the euro currency, handle President Trump and contain a resurgent Russia.
This isn’t what the CDU veterans, most nearing or past retirement age, had in mind when they came together weeks ago to plan the party’s future. Mr. Schäuble, once Ms. Merkel’s boss as CDU chairman and, more recently, her finance minister, had begun pressing allies to consider his close friend Friedrich Merz as her successor, said people familiar with his thinking.
With the CDU’s poll ratings dropping, Ms. Merkel was unlikely to survive the December convention, Mr. Schäuble told a small group of acquaintances on Oct. 9. Mr. Merz, a former CDU grandee turned business lawyer, could turn the party’s fortunes around, Mr. Schäuble told them.
The next day, Mr. Merz was in Brussels quietly touting his bid to senior conservatives in EU institutions, according to one he spoke with. In the following weeks, Mr. Merz and his supporters went on a vote-gathering spree, sounding out regional CDU leaders in states with large numbers of convention delegates.
A spokesman for Mr. Schäuble said he rejects any impression he was part of a network aiming to bring about change in CDU leadership. Mr. Merz declined to comment.
Mr. Schäuble in 2000 was CDU chairman and parliamentary-group leader when his peripheral role in a party-funding scandal forced him to resign as Ms. Merkel took over the reins as chairwoman. He later was minister in three Merkel cabinets. But the conservative south German and the centrist chancellor never developed a warm rapport, according to people who know both. They address each other using the formal German “Sie” form and last names.
Mr. Schäuble’s choice of successor was intended to signal a rupture in several ways, people familiar with Mr. Merz’s bid said. A former rising star who had taken over from Mr. Schäuble as CDU parliamentary leader, Mr. Merz had repeatedly clashed with Ms. Merkel.
She pushed her party to the left, expanding its share of the political market and winning elections by embracing such policies as the abolition of military conscription, phasing out nuclear power, and the introduction of a minimum wage. Mr. Merz stood for solid, if often unpopular, pro-market policies and socially conservative values.
In 2002, two years after she became chairwoman, she ousted him from the powerful job of parliamentary-group leader and took his place. He left politics a few years later, focusing on his legal career. She became chancellor in 2005.
After Ms. Merkel scored her party’s worst post-World War II election result in September 2017 and talks collapsed to form a three-way coalition of conservatives, pro-marketers and environmentalists, Mr. Schäuble told the chancellor she should build a minority government, according to a person familiar with the episode. She instead revived her unpopular left-right coalition with the Social Democratic Party.
By early October 2018, the CDU’s poll ratings had fallen into the mid-20s, well off its already disastrous 32.9% score at the September 2017 general election. Sensing Ms. Merkel’s star was fading, Mr. Schäuble and other like-minded CDU officials became convinced her successor would have to represent a break with the past, a person familiar with his thinking said.
Mr. Schäuble told Mr. Merz the Hesse state election’s aftermath would be the time to launch his political comeback, this person said. As Mr. Merz rehearsed his political message—conservatism couched in moderate tones designed to appeal broadly—he discreetly began canvassing old CDU friends for support in mid-October, said a person familiar with his bid.
His network’s core was the Andes Pact, a group of male politicians, active and retired, wielding substantial influence in the party. Among them was Günther Oettinger, Germany’s representative at the European Commission. Mr. Oettinger discussed Mr. Merz’s candidacy early last month when Mr. Merz traveled to Brussels, said a person familiar with the exchange.
When the CDU executive board gathered in Berlin on Oct. 29 for a Hesse-election postmortem, Mr. Schäuble’s predictions about the importance of the ballot appeared vindicated. The party had dropped 11 points in the vote from the prior election, and calls for Ms. Merkel to pay the consequences were all over German media. Mr. Merz’s backers expected a denouement at a closed-door meeting of party top brass scheduled for week’s end.
They thought the chancellor, after some resistance, would be persuaded to give up the party chair. Mr. Merz—his bid until now out of public eye—would emerge as the leading candidate, just as backroom deals had worked over the decades. That would give him an advantage over another party member expected to put her hand up, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU’s secretary-general.
Ms. Merkel’s ‘bomb’
Then, “as Merkel stood up and dropped the bomb, we looked at each other with Schäuble,” said one participant in the meeting, “and his look was speaking volumes”—a look, the person said, indicating Mr. Schäuble expected Mr. Merz to quickly make a public bid for the party leadership.
Mr. Merz almost immediately leaked the news of his comeback to the conservative Bild tabloid, in an effort to establish himself as successor, people familiar with the events said. But in the closed-door meeting, two other contenders—Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer and Jens Spahn, health minister—then also declared their candidacies. This, too, quickly leaked.
Speaking to journalists, a smiling Ms. Merkel said her succession was “now an open process.” Her decision not to seek re-election as chairwoman had matured during the summer, she said, after her fragile government had almost collapsed over proposed changes to immigration law.
A person close to her said Ms. Merkel had got wind of the Merz intrigue and didn’t want to fall victim to a palace coup.
Ms. Merkel is now a diminished figure who few experts believe can stay in the chancellery for another three years. “I would consider it a sheer miracle,” said Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a former defense minister who has remained friendly with her. “And I think it unlikely that the coalition will hold.”
Germany-watchers are scrutinizing the three candidates for hints of where they would take the country. Mr. Merz outlined a platform at a Wednesday press conference, declaring himself a “convinced European and trans-Atlanticist.” Mr. Merz, a senior counsel with U.S. law firm Mayer Brown and nonexecutive chairman of the German branch of BlackRock Inc., the world’s biggest asset manager, reiterated his pro-business positions.
Asked about animosity toward Ms. Merkel—which some analysts think could make it difficult for her to remain chancellor should he become chairman—Mr. Merz said there was none.
Allies of Mr. Merz said his biggest challenge will come from Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer. The chancellor’s protégée, nicknamed “mini-Merkel” by the German press, has yet to outline her priorities. In private conversations, she has said voters’ anxieties about immigration should be taken seriously, signaling a possible shift from Ms. Merkel’s stance.
She is the former premier of tiny Saar state, a Catholic who presents herself as more socially conservative than Ms. Merkel. She has campaigned against legalizing same-sex marriage and enforced in her state compulsory age tests for asylum seekers claiming to be children.
“She is a successful premier and determined European,” said Elmar Brok, a member of the CDU’s top executive body. “Her chances are great.”
Her closeness to Ms. Merkel could be her weakness, said political scientist Oskar Niedermayer. Mr. Oettinger, who supports Mr. Merz, echoed the argument, saying “her political profile is perhaps not yet so clearly defined in the eyes of voters.”
Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer and Mr. Spahn declined to comment.
Mr. Spahn is the youngest candidate at 38. He was the first senior CDU official to criticize Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy and a rare government member to actively seek contact with people close to Mr. Trump. He held talks with Steve Bannon, then White House chief strategist, and with national security adviser John Bolton.
He has sought to appeal to traditional CDU voters. In an essay in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine daily last week, he called immigration “the white elephant in the room.” By contrast, a video on his Facebook page appears tailored to a younger, YouTube-watching audience with fast cuts, upbeat soundtrack of rapid percussion and an optimistic message.
Whoever wins will likely determine not just the CDU’s political direction but also how long Ms. Merkel will stay in the chancellery. “With Kramp-Karrenbauer there can be a viable arrangement” between the chancellor and the CDU chairwoman,” said one Merkel aide. “With Merz, it would be very difficult. And Spahn is somewhere between the two.”
A poll published Oct. 31 found Mr. Merz the most popular, with 21.9% of respondents saying he was their choice. Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer followed with 16.2% and Mr. Spahn, with 8.2%. Nearly 23% of the surveyed believed none of them was a suitable replacement.