Chancellor-in-waiting

The sudden rise of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as heir to Angela Merkel

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Kramp-Karrenbauer, CDU, AKK, Merkel
Mini-me. Source: DPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared at ease on stage at the Berlin headquarters of her Christian Democratic Union the other day, even smiling for what seemed like the first time in months. What put “Mutti” Merkel in better spirits was the sense that she might at last have begun ordering her legacy and succession. And there she was, the chancellor’s heir apparent, bounding confidently up to the podium beside Ms. Merkel: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known in Germany as AKK.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has since 2011 been the premier of Saarland, Germany’s second-smallest state by population. But she has known Ms. Merkel much longer, and the chancellor now says that she has long been AKK’s “admirer.” That’s why Ms. Merkel has tapped her for the important position of CDU secretary general, the No. 2 spot in the party. Ms. Merkel gushed how thrilled she was that AKK would be “the first woman” in that office. The room and Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer burst into laughter when the chancellor remembered that she herself had in fact been the first woman in the job, between 1998 and 2000. It was lost on nobody that Ms. Merkel had used this position to launch her own ascent to power.

When she needs to pump up ... she cranks up AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”

In her home state of Saarland, tucked against the French border, AKK is a legend of sorts, after almost 20 years in public office there. Saarlanders describe her as “down-to-earth” and “unpretentious.” In her state’s regional election last year, she padded the campaign trail in turquoise sneakers, hitting coffee klatsches and town halls before scoring a surprising triumph for the CDU after being behind in the polls.

Part of her appeal is that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. At her local carnival, she’s known for dressing up – most recently as “Gretel the cleaning lady,” with a headscarf and checkered smock. In press interviews she omits the usual waffle, admitting that she can’t stand synchronized swimming or divulging that CCR and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are her favorite bands. When she needs to pump up “the basic aggression that can sometimes help in a [plenary] debate,” she cranks up AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”

Like Ms. Merkel, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer was raised as a devout Christian (she is Roman Catholic, Ms. Merkel is Lutheran). One of six children, AKK married when she was 22 years old and had her first child four years later while studying law and political science at university. She is now a mother of three.

AKK married when she was 22 years old and had her first child four years later.

Whereas Ms. Merkel hesitates to call herself a feminist, Ms. Kramp-Karrenberger proudly does. In 2012, she voted in favor of a mandatory women’s quota for supervisory boards (the idea was put forth by the CDU’s rivals, the Social Democrats). This went against the grain of Ms. Merkel and the CDU at the time. “The difficulties of combining a job and a family were what led me to become politically active in the first place,” she once said. Her husband, who gave up his own career as a mining engineer to be a stay-at-home dad, is her “tower of strength.”

But despite this progressive stance on gender, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer does not necessarily skew “left” on other social issues. She opposed the right of homosexuals to marry, which parliament enacted last year. In 2015, she caused some outrage for saying that gay marriage could open the door for “marriage among close relatives or more than two people.” Critics accused her of comparing homosexuality to incest and polygamy.

By straddling modern and conservative worldviews, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer could now become a unifying force in her the center-right big-tent party. On February 26, the Christian Democrats, at a party gathering, ratified Ms. Merkel’s suggestion by electing Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer as secretary general with 99 percent of the vote. This potential to reunite a party may be the main reason why Ms. Merkel believes in “mini-Merkel,” as the German press already calls AKK. During the 18 years in which Ms. Merkel has led the CDU, she has often steered the once-conservative party left in the name of “modernization,” alienating its right wing along the way. To succeed as chancellor, Ms. Merkel knows, any heir must first be accepted by the CDU’s rank and file.

annegret kramp-karrenbauer, akk
Anything but a bore. Here's AKK winning an award at Carnival in 2014. Source: DPA
annegret kramp-karrenbauer, akk
Smooching with her husband, Helmut. Source: picture alliance
annegret kramp-karrenbauer, akk
What d'ya mean, mini-Merkel? Campaigning for Saarland premier in 2017. Source: DPA
annegret kramp-karrenbauer, akk
A reassuring squeeze. After being elected CDU general secretary with nearly 99 percent of the vote. DPA
annegret kramp-karrenbauer, akk
She's often been described as "down-to-earth" and "unpretentious.” Source: DPA

Hence the choice of Ms.Kramp-Karrenbauer. She does not fit neatly into any ideological label. But she leans left on economic issues, as premier of a rust-belt state that has suffered more than its share of industrial dislocation and worker anxiety. AKK has always supported labor rights, including a minimum wage long before it became law. But on social issues, she leans right, and not only on family values.

During the refugee crisis of 2015, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer backed Ms. Merkel in welcoming hundreds of thousands of Syrians and others fleeing hardship. But she then also lobbied for tough screenings of those who arrived, with hand X-rays to determine the real age of refugees claiming to be minors. She also demanded swifter deportations of those whose asylum applications were rejected. On the most controversial issue in German politics today, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer can thus assuage the disgruntled right-wingers in her own party, while still isolating the far-right populists in the Alternative for Germany in their xenophobic corner.

All this is why Ms. Merkel has been courting AKK for a while to come from the Saarland to Berlin. But Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer demurred. She has been happy at home enjoying bike rides through the Saarland’s rolling hills with her family. But as she and Ms. Merkel observed the increasingly fraught infighting within the CDU, she came around and accepted the offer.

Nominally, the move from governing one of Germany’s 16 federal states to running the administration of a political party would be a step down in prestige and power. But Ms. Merkel and AKK both understand that the path to the chancellor’s office runs through the party, where Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer must now build alliances and organize internal cohesion. Before she became premier of the Saarland, she led the state’s portfolios such as sports, family, education and culture. So she still needs time to master the crafts of higher statesmanship, from finance to defense.

She rejects suggestions that she isn’t worldly enough for the big jobs.

She rejects suggestions that she, the product of a small state considered a backwater, isn’t worldly enough for the big jobs. People “assume that you have to change location and experience many different things in order to have a broad horizon. I see it otherwise,” she has told the German press. “When I talk about the compatibility of family and work, I do so from a completely different perspective than a parliament colleague whose wife raises the kids at home. I managed it myself with my husband, and I know how difficult that is.”

As apprentice to succeed Ms. Merkel, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer will now face rivalries far more treacherous than anything she has encountered in her home state. Her chief rival within the party appears to be Jens Spahn, an ambitious thirty-something who is openly gay but self-consciously conservative and likes to play gadfly to Ms. Merkel. The chancellor wants to make him health minister in her next cabinet, probably in order to contain him in that office.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, by contrast, has the advantage of Ms. Merkel’s support. Both are modest women with a discreet but strong religious compass, who prefer to unite and find consensus rather than divide and polarize. Both, moreover, give the impression that they don’t crave power for its own sake. “I have already achieved quite a bit in my political career,” AKK told one German magazine. “I don’t need to climb further. That is an extremely liberating feeling.”

Barbara Woolsey writes for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: b.woolsey@extern.handelsblattgroup.com

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