BERLIN (Reuters) - The woman who had been expected to become Germany's next chancellor said on Monday she would not run for the top job, succumbing to a scandal involving the far-right and blowing wide open the race to succeed Angela Merkel.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is a protegee of the chancellor and leader of their conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), but has faced growing doubts over her suitability to replace Merkel, who has led Germany for 15 years but plans to stand down at the federal election due in autumn 2021.
Last week, Kramp-Karrenbauer's inability to impose discipline on the CDU in the eastern state of Thuringia dealt a further blow to her credibility, eroded by a series of gaffes.
The regional CDU branch defied her by backing a local leader helped into office by the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), shattering a postwar consensus among established parties on shunning the far-right.
"I will not run for chancellor," Kramp-Karrenbauer, 57, told a news conference in Berlin, adding she had made her decision "with the intention of strengthening the CDU".
"In my view, this has no impact on the stability of the grand coalition," she said, referring to the national coalition between Merkel's conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD).
Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the SPD's most senior minister, told ARD television: "The coalition will do its work." He added that it was not the first time in this parliament parties had switched leaders.
Kramp-Karrenbauer's decision leaves a question mark over Germany's future direction as its economy, the world's fourth largest, flirts with recession and as the European Union struggles to define itself after Britain's exit.
Merkel has loomed large on the global stage since 2005, helping to steer the EU through the euro zone crisis and opening Germany's doors to migrants fleeing wars in the Middle East in 2015 - a move that still divides the bloc and her country.
Bild, Germany's best-selling newspaper laid the blame for Kramp-Karrenbauer's failure at Merkel's door, saying the party would struggle to reinvent itself while she was chancellor.
"Angela Merkel wanted a fake successor who couldn't outshine her," it wrote.
Merkel did not seek re-election to the party chair in 2018, allowing Kramp-Karrenbauer to take the party helm with a view to boosting her profile prior to running for the chancellery. But doubts about her leadership credentials persisted.
"The separation of chancellorship and party chair, the open question around who will become the candidate for chancellor weakens the CDU at a time... (when) Germany needs a strong CDU," Kramp-Karrenbauer told Monday's news conference.
Kramp-Karrenbauer's ratings plummeted last year after a number of public gaffes, including poking fun at transgender people in a light-hearted carnival speech.
She said she would remain party chair until another chancellor candidate has been found and will stay on as defence minister.
But erstwhile rivals for the party leadership - Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn - have been circling, while Armin Laschet, premier of Germany's largest state and a Merkel ally, did not rule out running.
Merz has quit asset manager Blackrock
"Now's the right time to provide impetus via economic and financial policy measures," Merz said on Monday in a tweet.
Being out of political office has let Merz speak his mind, keeping him in the news. A Forsa poll found 27% of the public thought him the best candidate, followed by Laschet on 18%.
Spahn and Markus Soeder, leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, both said they respected Kramp-Karrenbauer's decision and said the cohesion of their conservative alliance was essential.
Laschet, who as premier of North Rhine-Westfalia, a state of 17 million people, has executive experience that other candidates lack, was more forthcoming than in the past.
Asked as he left a news conference if he was trying to avoid being asked about the chancellorship, he replied tersely: "I'm not afraid of anything."
Alexander Gauland, honorary chairman of the far-right AfD, said the CDU's efforts under Kramp-Karrenbauer to ostracise his party had failed.
(Reporting by Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Wolfgang Rattay in Aachen; Writing by Thomas Escritt, Paul Carrel and Michelle Martin; Editing by Gareth Jones and Janet Lawrence)
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