Merkel continues her reign
"You have no idea what a great leader you have," said Joseph Daul, president of the European People's Party, during the opening of the Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) 27th party conference in Cologne. But of course the 1,001 delegates know; the remark was half made in jest. Anyone who has experienced Angela Merkel in person has seen how calm and modest she is. Anyone who has observed how she travels around the world without the kind of conspicuous security detail that accompanies US President Barack Obama could easily forget that she is one of the most powerful women in the world.
It may not have been a record result, but there were only 30 opposing votes ; with that, she was once again confirmed as party leader. Merkel's well-received speech was likely what garnered her 96.72 percent – so close to the 100 percent mark. "There was a lot of verve in her speech," said Helma Kuhn-Theis from the Saarland. "I haven't seen Merkel like that in a long time. She summed up a lot of things really well."
For Ansgar Heveling, an MP from North Rhine-Westphalia, it was a special speech, because Merkel got personal and spoke about the start of her political career in the German Democratic Republic after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
After nine years as chancellor and 14 years as the head of the CDU, there were no whispers of Merkel fatigue rising from the ranks of the delegates. Instead, all factions and regional associations of the party felt well-addressed following Merkel's speech which lasted over an hour.
Looking to next parliamentary elections
Merkel is sitting firmly in the saddle of the CDU and is already looking ahead to the next parliamentary elections in 2017. Who might make a good coalition partner? Surprisingly, she mentioned the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). The FDP "is and remains our natural coalition partner" and should not "be written off too quickly," Merkel said.
But Merkel also indicated a certain openness to the Green Party. "After the last parliamentary elections, we were prepared to enter into such a coalition, but some of the Greens weren't, which is too bad," she added.
The CDU's current coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) didn't get off as lightly. In her view, it was a "declaration of bankruptcy" when the SPD entered into a coalition in the state of Thuringia with the Left Party, which is the successor to the Socialist Union Party (SED) that ruled former East Germany. In that state coalition, the SPD backed a Left Party politician for the post of state premier. "How much smaller does the SPD want to make itself?" Merkel asked to thunderous applause. "Thuringia should serve as a test case for such a coalition at the federal level," she warned. She didn't have a word to spare for the new right-wing Alternative for Germany Party, however.
Merkel was also forward-looking in her program points. In the age of digital transformation and a complete reshuffling of the deck, Germany should "not spend a single day resting on its laurels."
"I want us to shape Germany's future," she said. It should be underpinned by a social market economy and an acquired balance of freedom and security, while respecting the dignity of the individual. She also rejected the commercialization of assisted suicide, saying "dying is also part of caring for a person."
The gap in her wake
But who or what should follow Merkel? For years now there's been speculation over who could fill her shoes one day. Looking at the ranks of the CDU though, it is difficult to identify any potential candidates. Among the cabinet ministers, two names have been doing the rounds: Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.
Neither appears very chancellor-esque at the moment. Von der Leyen is stuck knee-deep in reforming Germany's armed forces, and de Maiziere is looking increasingly colorless. Among the league of the 16 state premiers – another breeding ground for potential chancellors – the CDU has just four options. The Greens are currently part of more state governments than Merkel's CDU.
Among her five deputies, there are only two who stand out. Volker Bouffier is head of the new government in the state of Hessen - a coalition between the CDU and the Green Party, which is an important test for a potential Conservative-Green government on the national level. Merkel emphasized this in her speech. In the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Julia Klöckner has yet to win the election for premier, but many in the CDU have faith in her abilities. She got the most votes by far in the deputy elections.
A short while ago, sources said that Merkel would step down at some point during this term. But by now, the conversation has switched to whether she will run again in 2017. If she does, she could potentially break former CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl's record of 16 years in office.
The CDU has been fully geared toward Merkel for years. The continuously high approval ratings for her and the CDU don't put the party under pressure to act. Some people have even dubbed Germany's young adults "generation Merkel."
But underneath all of this there's still the fearful question of what comes next. The CDU won't be able to evade it much longer, or it risks a Merkel-addiction that comes with a painful withdrawal.
Merkel can only appear so powerful on the European stage, because she has her domestic affairs in order - and that includes the party convention in Cologne. To ensure peace and quiet, she even resolved an argument around a tax issue right before the start of the party convention.