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Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s Anointed Successor, Won’t Run for Chancellor

BERLIN — Amid furor over her party’s flirtation with the far right in eastern Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handpicked successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said on Monday that she would no longer seek the country’s top position, adding to the political uncertainty in Europe’s most important democracy.

The announcement reinforced a profound sense of malaise and political limbo in Germany at a time when neighboring capitals are impatiently looking to Berlin for leadership in a post-Brexit Europe.

It has also raised uncomfortable questions over the direction Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union — still Germany’s biggest party but shrinking fast — will take after she leaves power next year.

Monday’s news followed five days of political turmoil, in which the local chapter of the party in the eastern state of Thuringia voted for the same candidate as the far-right Alternative for Germany, prompting a national outcry.

The vote defied Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who as party leader had given clear instructions not to collaborate with the Alternative for Germany at any level. It not only exposed the temptation in some ultra-conservative circles of the party to join forces with the far right, but highlighted her lack of authority among her own grass roots.

“The AfD stands against everything that we in the C.D.U. stand for,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a news conference announcing her decision not to seek the top office, referring to the acronyms of the Alternative for Germany and her own Christian Democratic Union. “Any form of rapprochement with the AfD weakens the C.D.U.”

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who will remain defense minister, was chosen as leader of Ms. Merkel’s conservative party in December 2018 and had been widely expected to succeed her as chancellor.

Her victory at the time, over two male and more conservative rivals, had been seen as an endorsement of Ms. Merkel’s liberal legacy — and a mandate to preserve it.

But it was a narrow victory and in the 14 months since, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer not only failed to win over the skeptics in her party, she also lost the trust of many erstwhile fans and saw her popularity in opinion polls erode.

She said Monday that she will remain in place as party leader until a new leader — and candidate for chancellor — will be picked at a party congress in December.

Several potential candidates are already waiting in the wings, chief among them Friedrich Merz, who narrowly lost to Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer at the 2018 party conference but is popular with the Christian Democrats’ conservative wing. Mr. Merz said earlier this month that he would step down from his job in finance to “serve the country” even more fully.

Another potential contender is Armin Laschet, the centrist leader of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A former junior minister of integration and a staunch defender of Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy, Mr. Laschet is seen as the candidate of continuity and someone who would find it easy to cooperate with the Greens, a possible coalition partner in the future. He did not throw his hat in the ring at last party conference, but has indicated that he would be “available.”

Two outside candidates are Jens Spahn, the health secretary, another conservative but also younger and gay; and Markus Söder, the charismatic leader of the Bavarian sister party of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

The crisis in Thuringia has given Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation particular symbolic importance. She has categorically rejected working with Alternative for Germany, which is commonly known by its German acronym, AfD.

In June, she accused the AfD of creating the “intellectual climate” in which a far-right extremist shot and killed Walter Lübcke, a regional government official, in what was the first far-right political assassination in Germany since World War II.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has said that anyone who toys with the idea of working with the AfD “should close their eyes and imagine Walter Lübcke. ”But in the more conservative wing of the Christian Democrats, her resignation was welcomed. Hans-Georg Maassen, a former chief of the intelligence service, celebrated her move. “The right decision,” he wrote on Twitter. “The C.D.U. now needs a chief who solves problems and isn’t part of the problems.”

The far-right party was quick to hail her resignation as a victory. Alexander Gauland, a senior party leader, welcomed Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement as a sign that there was no longer a consensus inside the Christian Democrats on isolating the AfD.

“It is completely nonsensical and delusional not to want to work with the AfD in the long term,” Mr. Gauland said. “Her party grass roots have long understood this.”

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

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