03:16 - Source: CNN
Watch highlights from Angela Merkel's career

Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is the author of “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” This article has been updated to reflect the most accurate election results. The opinion in this article belong to the author.

CNN  — 

For five months, Germany has labored inelegantly to forge a new government. Although a “grand coalition” between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) now looks likely, it’s by no means a done deal until the result of a vote by SPD members is revealed on March 4

Nevertheless, in spite of Germany’s current political limbo, several things are unambiguous: Merkel will be the next chancellor, even if it comes to fresh elections. And this term will be her last.

Indeed, the rudder and compass of Europe’s most prominent conservative party will be up for grabs – setting the stage for an internal party contest with implications for all of Europe and beyond.

And there are several handfuls of contenders who would like to fill her shoes.

The politics of Merkel’s successor is so decisive because the CDU will run Germany for many years to come, long after Merkel’s exit.

Indeed, no other party comes close to challenging the conservatives’ hegemony. Their one-time rival, the SPD, is in tailspin, experiencing the same trajectory as its unhappy social democratic peers across Europe.

Moreover, Germany’s Merkel-era CDU stands as a Europe-wide emblem for liberal-minded conservatism that refuses to collaborate with the xenophobic far right, in stark contrast to Austria’s Christian Democrats. All of this means that Merkel’s legacy hangs in the balance.

This makes the jockeying in the party for the post-Merkel era all the more momentous, which she stoked over the weekend, presenting a proposed new cabinet full of younger faces. Since Merkel has not groomed an heir, a field of contenders has emerged who will debut in the next government and party leadership.

Most of them are to the right of Merkel – a concession to her critics on the right, certainly – but possibly also an admission on Merkel’s part that her party must change.

The defining fault line in the CDU – a big-tent party home to constituencies ranging from neoliberals to Catholic traditionalists – divides Merkel-style liberals, on the one hand, and traditional, nationally minded conservatives, on the other.

05:50 - Source: CNN
Merkel ally: She is committed to stay on

Among the latter are powerful critics who charge Merkel with steering the party too far to the left. They claim that she’s misread the zeitgeist, which has shifted politics starkly to the right – in Germany, in all of Europe and in the US, too – thus exposing the party’s right flank to the national populists of the far right.

Late last year, the nativist, Islamophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag for the first time after securing 12.6 percent of the vote in Germany’s federal elections. And since then, it has shot up to 15 percent in the polls.

CDU conservatives say that their party has to offer AfD voters – some of whom peeled off from the CDU – substantially stronger policies on migration, security and cultural values if it hopes to win them back.

Others say this only fans the far right’s flames, playing straight into its hands.

Merkel’s cabinet choices, including some surprises among them, are the chosen ones who will be on the national stage to prove their mettle. With the new team, Merkel has responded to critics who said the party must rejuvenate itself and that the CDU’s right wing should be better represented in the government.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Merkel’s pick for health minister, the 37-year-old Jens Spahn, an ambitious, vocal arch-conservative of the old mold, even if he is openly gay.

Spahn, in the Bundestag since his 22nd birthday, is the darling of the CDU’s right, who castigate Merkel’s migration policies – among many other of her signature positions – as an existential error for Germany.

Spahn can at times even sound like one of the AfD’s rabble-rousers when he’s calling for tighter security policies as a response to migration, a ban on wearing the burka in public and the rejection of dual citizenship.

Only those who underestimate Merkel – and many have, usually to their own peril – believe she promoted Spahn to give a conservative of his stripe a fair shot at her throne. The health ministry is known as a shark tank for the competing interests it must weigh, and the German media wonder if Spahn will be chewed up and spit out rather than shine, as conservatives hope.

All of the other newcomers are women in their 40s and early 50s.

Julia Klöckner, for instance, the next agriculture minister, is a smooth-talking CDU loyalist from southern Germany’s wine country. She’s to the right of Merkel, and not considered close to the Chancellor, but not nearly as conservative as Spahn. She, too, had unkind words for Merkel’s migration policies in 2015 and 2016, which, claimed Klöcker, cost the CDU the Rhineland-Palatinate election.

More in Merkel’s image is Anja Karliczek, an unknown to most of the republic. The new education minister, a 46-year-old mother of three from Westphalia, is a conservative woman with a modern world view, much like Merkel’s.

Merkel’s favorite, though, could well be Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the current prime minster of Germany’s littlest state, Saarland, to whom Merkel handed over the CDU party leadership, a post that Merkel herself had held for 17 years. Though a devout Catholic, and culturally more traditional than Merkel, the 53-year-old Kramp-Karrenbauer is liked by the Chancellor and wowed the party by wresting Saarland from the left and expanding the CDU’s majority in the 2017 vote.

This diverse and young new cabinet could prove to be Merkel’s latest coup. She’s been harshly taken to task in her own party for dragging it to the center. Although the CDU won the 2017 election handily, its tally was the CDU’s lowest since 1949.

But now the CDU is looking to the future – with a host of promising figures. For now, the winner is Angela Merkel.