Merz, a longtime Merkel rival and critic, said this week that the CDU’s poor regional election results were a “vote of no confidence” in the grand coalition. Calling the government’s record “horrendous,” Merz laid the blame squarely at Merkel’s feet, accusing her of failing to lead.As she usually does in the face of such attacks, Merkel remained silent.Bigger questionThe uncertainty over the CDU’s leadership is about much more than who leads the party.The bigger question is what direction Germany’s biggest political party will take, a decision that won’t be made until Merkel is gone.Under Merkel, the CDU moved so far to the center on a host of social and cultural issues that many voters say they no longer know what it stands for. In her first months as party leader, Kramp-Karrenbauer sounded more conservative notes on migration and gender politics. But when the party’s poll numbers began to slide, she reversed course.That discursive messaging helps explain the CDU’s poor showing in a string of recent elections, including the European election in May, where it lost nearly a quarter of its support. Growing discord between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats (SPD), their reluctant partners in the federal coalition, has further complicated the center-right’s crisis.The SPD faces its own internal issues. Depending on who wins the party’s upcoming leadership race, there’s a fair chance it will decide by year-end to exit the coalition.That might prompt the CDU to attempt a minority government until the end of the legislative term in 2021, either with or without Merkel. New elections are another possibility.Neither scenario is ideal. Not only is Germany set to take over the rotating Council of the EU presidency in July, there’s also a good chance the EU budget will be finalized during its term.After the trials of Brexit and the EU’s bungled Balkan expansion, another German faceplant is the last thing Europe needs. Also On POLITICO Germany’s Altmaier taken to hospital after fall at digital conference By Janosch Delcker Far left and right outflank center in regional German vote By Joshua Posaner Back at home, her absence has led to infighting and paralysis, both in the CDU and the government coalition.“As long as Merkel is chancellor, the leadership question will remain unresolved,” one senior CDU official said.After nearly 15 years as chancellor, Merkel has achieved a degree of political authority that Kramp-Karrenbauer as the former premier of Saarland, one of Germany’s smallest states, simply can’t match. In poll after poll, Merkel ranks as Germany’s first- or second-most trusted politician. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Germans don’t think Kramp-Karrenbauer is ready to be chancellor, according to a poll published this month.Helpers hold up a blanket to shield German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier from view after his fall in Dortmund | Bernd Thissen/AFP via Getty ImagesIn an effort to raise her profile, Kramp-Karrenbauer took over Germany’s defense ministry in July from Ursula von der Leyen.It’s been rough going.While she drew praise for pushing through a plan to allow army personnel to travel on German trains for free, her bold suggestion last week that the German military should engage in Syria was widely panned, even by some senior officials in her own party. Even those in the CDU who want to see Germany look after its own security interests instead of relying almost solely on the U.S. were critical.“She has the right impulses, but the execution could have been much better,” one CDU lawmaker said.The episode has fueled doubts within the party over whether Kramp-Karrenbauer is ready to step into Merkel’s shoes.Other contenders are waiting in the wings.Is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer really ready to success Angela Merkel? | Sean Gallup/Getty ImagesBoth Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and Friedrich Merz, a CDU veteran who narrowly lost to Kramp-Karrenbauer in last year’s leadership race, have been conspicuously present in German media and public forums of late, offering their views on the state of the CDU and the world.Health Minister Jens Spahn, a favorite of the party’s youth wing who also lost to Kramp-Karrenbauer, has also maintained a busy public schedule. BERLIN — It was a made-for-Twitter stumble.Just after opening Germany’s “Digital Summit” in Dortmund on Tuesday, Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister, tripped off the stage, flying face first onto the venue’s cement floor. (Altmaier broke his nose, but his ministry said he was “doing well.”)The snarky memes that filled social media in the hours that followed were just as predictable as the faux shock over the tasteless reactions. But what irked some of Altmaier’s allies most of all was that in falling flat on his face, the minister unwittingly delivered the perfect metaphor for the dysfunction of Germany’s dominant political party and the governing coalition it leads. Try as they might, Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU) can’t seem to get anything right of late. Altmaier’s summit was meant to signal that Germany is finally getting serious about digitalization; instead, it will be remembered for his inadvertent stage dive. Whether debating gender-neutral restrooms or how to respond to the crisis in Syria, party leaders’ main contribution to Germany’s national conversation in recent months has been to serve as an inspiration for punchline writers.It was a year ago this week that the center-right party began preparing for life after Angela Merkel. After the CDU got battered in a key regional election in Hesse, Merkel agreed to hand over control of the party to a successor and said she wouldn’t pursue another term as chancellor.“As long as Merkel is chancellor, the leadership question will remain unresolved” — A senior CDU officialAbout a month later, the party elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s hand-picked choice, to succeed her. Hopes that “AKK,” as Kramp-Karrenbauer is widely known, would manage to quickly restore unity to the party and energize its base soon dissipated, however.That’s largely because Merkel remains the de facto head of the party, her critics say. Even if she formally handed the reins of the party to Kramp-Karrenbauer, among Christian Democrats there’s no question who’s really in charge.Nonetheless, Merkel isn’t actually running the party. In recent campaigns, including the European election and a number of state ballots, the chancellor stayed on the sidelines. She’s also avoided engaging in the domestic political debates, preferring the limelight of the international stage, where she is widely respected as Europe’s elder stateswoman. After the trials of Brexit and the EU’s bungled Balkan expansion, another German faceplant is the last thing Europe needs.Last weekend in the eastern state of Thuringia, the CDU suffered even bigger losses, with its support by dropping by more than one-third. It fell from first place to third behind both the far-left Linke party, which placed first, and the far-right Alternative for Germany.With Merkel out of sight, other party leaders seemed unsure how to the respond to the debacle.After the local CDU leader in Thuringia suggested the party not rule out cooperating with the far-left Linke party, the Christian Democrats’ ideological opposite, he was quickly slapped down.During a combative meeting of the party’s executive committee at CDU headquarters on Monday, the head of the party’s youth wing, Tilman Kuban, suggested it is time to clarify who “should sit in the chancellery.”Kramp-Karrenbauer took the comment as an attack on her leadership, insisting she has no intention of stepping down, but others in the room said Kuban’s real target was Merkel.