Germany’s centre-right Christian Democrats are seeking a new leader after Merkel’s chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said she would not stand as chancellor in the next federal election.
The empty chair at the top of the country’s biggest and most powerful party, CDU, is due to be filled at a special party gathering in Berlin on April 25.
Barring any surprise candidacies, delegates will choose between Armin Laschet, the centrist state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia and closest to a Merkel continuity candidate, the veteran rightwinger Friedrich Merz, and Norbert Röttgen, a foreign policy expert.
Merkel’s protegee, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, threw the party into turmoil in February by saying she would not stand as chancellor in the next federal election, due next year and would give up the CDU party chair.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned when the CDU was tainted by a political scandal in the state of Thuringia.
Local party politicians in the east-central state undermined her leadership when they voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) to oust the left-wing incumbent governor, in defiance of her instructions.
A deal with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), now annulled, put a liberal in charge of Thuringia thanks to AfD and CDU votes.
It broke a post-war German taboo: no deals with the far right or far left.
Party in-fighting over its handling of the election culminated in Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer's resignation.
Now the race is on to find a new successor.
Armin Laschet, regarded as the front runner and widely viewed as the continuity candidate of Angela Merkel, Laschet is the CDU's leader in North-Rhine Westphalia and has consistently defended Merkel's liberal migration policies during the 2015 refugee crisis. He has the backing of the influential Minister for Health and senior CDU figure, Jens Spahn.
The challenger is Friedrich Merz who lost out to Angela Merkel in the power struggle to succeed Helmut Kohl nearly 20 years ago. His ambition to lead the CDU follows a long career in the private sector sitting on various corporate boards.
Focusing on politics again, this is his second attempt in two years to lead the CDU having lost out to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2018. The corporate lawyer wants to win back CDU voters who have defected to the far-right AFD, particularly in the East, and shift the party in a more conservative direction.
The surprise candidate is Norbert Röttgen, a foreign policy expert who chairs the Bundestag's (German parliament) foreign affairs committee.
The long-shot candidate famously fell out with Angela Merkel when he refused to resign after the CDU's defeat in a 2012 local election in North-Rhine Westphalia having led the ticket.
As a cabinet member at the time, Ms Merkel demanded his resignation as Environment minister, he refused, and his public dismissal soured their relationship to this day.
The political maneuvering continues as Germany launches an investigation into a far-right attack last week in Hanau, a suburb of Frankfurt.