Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and Jens Spahn, the candidates for CDU party chair, attend a conference in Duesseldorf.Thilo Schmuelgen / Reuters

BERLIN — In the race to replace German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the head of her center-right Christian Democrats, the buzzword is undoubtedly change.

The CDU party-leader election in Hamburg Friday will mark the first open leadership contest within Germany’s dominant party in decades. As mainstream parties across Europe continue to struggle in the face of challenges from upstart movements and the far right, ambitious CDU pols have seized the moment to launch a rare, broader debate about the direction of their party and the country.

But as much as they may prefer to focus on political renewal, the three contenders for the top job—a former political rival of Merkel, an unofficially anointed successor, and an ambitious young member of her cabinet—are stuck between promising change and honoring Merkel’s outsize legacy. Hanging over the discussion is the question of what, exactly, Merkel’s towering political presence has done to Germany. Did she help the CDU ascend to new electoral heights, shifting its positions where necessary to capture the political zeitgeist? Or did she dilute her party’s identity, creating an opening for the rise of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and plunging the CDU into the same crisis facing its counterparts across Europe?

“By CDU standards, this is extraordinary,” Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist with the University of Kiel, told me. “This kind of open debate is somewhat unusual for Merkel’s CDU … it’s always a big deal when you have a new CDU leader, because it doesn’t happen all that often. Unlike a lot of the other political parties, it’s very stable.”

The effort to strike the tricky balance between change and homage was evident in Berlin last Friday night, at the last of eight regional conferences during which the three candidates presented their case to party stalwarts.

Though the candidates—Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and Jens Spahn—have largely been nonconfrontational during those meetings, their most charged exchanges have been over migration, easily the most controversial aspect of Merkel’s tenure. Perhaps their sharpest back-and-forth (by German standards, anyway) came when Merz, after initially lauding Merkel, accused the CDU of accepting the rise of the AfD “with a shrug.” Merz, who spent nearly a decade in the finance sector after having been vanquished by Merkel in an internal party battle, promised to bring the CDU back to 40 percent in the polls—approximately the same percentage it won in the 2013 elections.

In an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Kramp-Karrenbauer, a protégé of the chancellor who is sometimes called “mini-Merkel,” fired back, calling Merz “naive” and noting that she, as the former premier of the German state of Saarland, had already proved that she could deliver such results in the state’s 2017 elections. Spahn, a 38-year-old health minister, called on the party to openly debate the United Nations’ migration pact, which created a set of nonbinding, common international guidelines for dealing with migration issues. It has become a lightning rod for far-right criticism.

The debate consuming the CDU is the same one facing its center-right brethren across Europe. With right-wing populism chipping away at their former dominance, these parties have largely chosen to either stand their ground in hopes that voters eventually come back, or mimic the rhetoric and policies of the far right to beat it at its own game.

Some, such as Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, have found success with the latter strategy: His center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has largely adopted the far right’s views on immigration, to the point that the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) is now its junior governing partner. Others, such as members of Sweden’s center-right Moderate Party or Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have tried this tack with far less electoral success.

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At least until now, Merkel and her CDU have provided the prime example of the anti-Kurz strategy. She has not only mostly resisted pressure to shift toward the far right, but also moved the party pragmatically to the left over the years, on issues ranging from energy and the environment to immigration and same-sex marriage. This approach has strong detractors in the CDU, who argue that the party’s platform is no longer recognizable. But she also has loyal defenders, who contend that the CDU and the country will miss Merkel and her leadership when she’s gone.

“It was right for Ms. Merkel to keep her party up-to-date programmatically,” Daniel Günther, premier of the state Schleswig-Holstein, told Der Tagesspiegel over the weekend. “Because a conservative party must time and again face the challenges of the day … this has worked well for many years.”

It’s difficult to discern who will win on Friday (and what that means for the future): Kramp-Karrenbauer, often referred to by her initials “A.K.K.,” has held a consistent lead in polling among CDU supporters by insisting that the next leader need not reinvent the wheel. “It’s not that we don’t recognize the problem: We know what we could do, should do, and have to do,” she said. But the next leader will be chosen by a set of 1,001 delegates, not by the party’s base, and Merz has received the warmer response from the conference attendees—an unscientific but perhaps more telling indicator. Most political observers agree that Spahn, far behind in both polling and audience enthusiasm, is unlikely to prevail.

Whoever wins will have to balance the CDU’s desire for something new with the consequences of 18 years of Merkelism, the demands of the party, and the priorities of the wider electorate. Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst for the German polling firm Forsa, told me that approximately two-thirds of German voters believe it should continue its current centrist path, while just a third want to see a rightward turn.

“We’ve always had a considerable minority who say [the party] should open up more to the right and return to their core values that are defined,” he said, “but the majority doesn’t want that.”

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