BERLIN – German politics is a kingdom in which predictability is appreciated. But when the greats and grunts of Germany's dominant post-war party gather in Hamburg on Friday, they will face an unknown uncertainty over the last 18 years.
The Christian Democratic Union will elect its first new leader since a 45-year-old German-born physician, Angela Merkel, took command in 2000. The choice is between a close ally of Merkel who wants to continue with the large tent centering that the chancellor has long supported, or a long-standing rival who aims to bring the party back to the right.
Who wins becomes the favorite to become the next leader of Germany, with the opportunity to shape the first political and economic player of Europe for the years to come. This means that while Merkel is nowhere to run in the vote on Friday, she has everything at stake.
"This is his legacy," said Robin Alexander, a German author and journalist who has written extensively about the chancellor. "If Merz wins, it means the CDU wants something new … If AKK wins, they want to continue and still appreciate it, Merkel is heavily invested in AKK."
Merz is Friedrich Merz, a 63-year-old corporate lawyer who has been out of politics for almost a decade after being without ceremony set aside at the beginning of Merkel's reign.
AKK is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a silently effective 56-year-old politician who Merkel has chosen as general secretary of the CDU this year after a long tenure to lead the small western German state of Saarland.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, as well as being a stylistic soul, would have given Merkel the chance to step out gracefully from the chancellery. Merkel said she intends to govern until her term expires in 2021, and Kramp-Karrenbauer's choice would at least make it a possibility.
Probably a harder start should go with Merz. The vote will not only mark a rejection of Merkel, but it would also create a cumbersome dynamic in which two people who are known do not go together sit together at the top of the German political world.
The polls show that Kramp-Karrenbauer is better than Merz among the voters of the CDU and the general public. But Merz received a considerably more enthusiastic response in a series of town-style meetings held throughout the country in the weeks since Merkel stunned the German political world by announcing that she would step aside as party president.
Ultimately, the choice is up to the 1,001 delegates who convene Friday in Hamburg, a mix of party elders and local office holders who will make a decision with consequences for 83 million Germans.
The party's choice mirrors that of the center-right parties across Europe as they attempt to adapt to a radical far-right. In countries such as Austria, France and Great Britain, conservative traditional heavyweights have adopted much of the rhetoric and positioning of their populist rivals. The strategy succeeded in some points and failed spectacularly elsewhere.
Merkel, while strengthening her position on immigration, has largely refused to try to beat the extreme right by combining her approach to politics. Refuses to collaborate with the Anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), and continues to defend the decision that more than others has made a pariah among the insurgent party's followers: his choice to keep open German borders between an unparalleled influx of asylum seekers.
That stance has won his plaudits as a beacon of tolerance and humanitarianism that is ready to face a rising wave of populism in defense of Western values. But he also deserved his disdain not only for AfD, but also for some inside his own party who feel that the CDU has strayed too far from the center – or even from the left – under his leadership .
Most of those discontented CDU voters put their hopes on Merz. During his years in the political desert, having become rich in the business world, he was known to be critical of Merkel's inclination to deviate from conservative positions. This trend included not only the way it treated refugees, but also the introduction of a minimum wage, the end of nuclear power and the strengthening of the social assistance system.
As a candidate, Merz has paid attention not to paint as a zealous opponent of Merkel, mindful of the fact that he continues to enjoy a broad appreciation in the party for his 13-year run as chancellor.
But he did enough to signal that he would take the CDU – and, perhaps, Germany – in a different direction.
Merz guessed his response to the 2015 crisis, saying it would allow a first group of asylum seekers to enter but then moved quickly to seal the border. Experts doubt that this would have been possible given the volume of people entering the continent and the lack of internal border controls in Europe.
Merz also questioned the fundamental right to asylum, even though he later had to return these comments to criticism that his suggestion was unconstitutional.
Perhaps the most appealing thing for his fans is his boast of being able to reduce AFD support in half and bring the CDU's share of the vote to 40%. The party won only 33 percent in last year's election and in the last 20 it fell in the 1920s, while AfD rose to around 15. Merz recently accused her party of accepting the 39; ascent of AfD "with a" shrug ".
"A decisive argument will be who will win back voters, and I think many have hopes that Merz can provide the answer," said Wolfgang Fischer, mayor of the CDU of the German city of Olsberg and longtime friend of Merz.
But the CDU did not just lose the voters right. Even the centrist and progressive voters have left the party, causing a surge for green environmentalists.
This is one of the reasons why many members of the CDU are wary of a rebel right and prefer a less polarizing candidate.
Much like Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer is known as a moderate consensus builder who rejects ideology in favor of pragmatism. She, like the chancellor, has encouraged the country to move from an endless debate on the decisions made in 2015. The similarities have earned it the nickname of "mini-Merkel".
"AKK can better unite the party," said Herbert Reul, CDU's interior minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state. "His personality is not conflictual: he is a mediator and does not defend only a particular position but is open."
If AKK reminds Merkel of herself, Merz could more closely resemble some of the foreign leaders of great personality whom the Chancellor has become accustomed to doing.
"Merz is the kind of man Merkel does not like to have around him," said Margaret Heckel, who wrote a book about the chancellor's leadership style. "If you look at his team, you do not find the alpha males intrusive."
Still, the alpha male is in vogue all over the world, either in Russia, Turkey or the United States. Merz is certainly not Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or President Trump. But it would be, at least, a nod in that direction after years in which Germany has opposed provocatively.
It would also be a return to a previous era, one before Merkel's 18 years modernized the CDU and transformed it from the older, more masculine and more traditional party than it had been for long.
"He's a character of the years", "said Alexander, the author, who is the main correspondent of the right-wing Die Welt newspaper. "Merz can mean something new, but strangely, something new would be something old."