Angela Merkel received rapturous applause from her Christian Democrats on Friday, after delivering an emotional speech marking the end of 18 years as party leader in which she said she had been honoured to serve them.
Merkel, 64, fought back tears as CDU delegates gave her a 10-minute standing ovation accompanied by cheers and cries of “Danke Angie”. Delegates held posters stating: “Thanks boss, for 18 years of leadership”.
The result of the vote for Merkel’s successor is due later on Friday following a nail-biting contest and the first open CDU leadership race in almost 50 years.
In a run-off are the party’s general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, millionaire businessman Friedrich Merz. Jens Spahn, currently health minister in Merkel’s government, was knocked out in the first round.
Whoever wins is tipped to become chancellor and take over Merkel’s role as the most powerful politician in Europe.
Admitting she had sometimes been an “infuriating” leader, “driving some to distraction with my last-minute decision-making” – a reference to her controversial decision to open Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees – Merkel said it was now time for the CDU to “embark on a new chapter”.
She urged the party to ensure it was “well-equipped, motivated and united” to face the tough challenges of the future.More than 1,000 party delegates are eligible to vote on what has been described as the most momentous decision for the party in nearly 50 years and one that will decide the direction not only of the CDU, but also of their country and their continent.
Initially described as the frontrunner, Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, who has 18 years of frontline political experience including six years as leader of the state of Saarland, has faced tough competition from Merz, the CDU’s former parliamentary leader who has parachuted in from his high-powered job as an economics lawyer in the banking industry, insisting he can win back many of the millions of voters the party has lost to rightwing populism.
Merkel had refused to publicly endorse any candidate, though Kramp-Karrenbauer is said to be her clear choice, not least because she propelled her to the position of CDU general secretary in February.
But she pointedly used her 30-minute valediction to praise Kramp-Karrenbauer for taking the CDU to a 40% victory in the state of Saarland last year, when she was leader of the state, and added: “We have the strength to break trends, to win elections, if we fight together and decisively.”