surprise appointment

Merkel gives pivotal job to conservative Catholic, sparking succession talk

Gremiensitzungen der CDU
Stage-right of center? Source: DPA

One of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political strengths has been her ability to stifle the ambitions of inner-party challengers, even those who had ascended to a cabinet position in her government. So it becomes all the more notable whom she appoints to positions that could challenge her own, especially as her center-right Christian Democrat Union, or CDU, prepares for renewal in the era after her.

Ms. Merkel on Monday appointed Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 55, as general secretary of the CDU, a role where she serves both as party administrator and spokesperson. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK within the party, has led the southwestern German state of Saarland as premier for the past seven years and was expected to receive a ministerial post after delivering her party a much-needed state election win last year in the run-up to September’s national election. Instead, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer will now become the de facto party leader.

“Since all key ministerial positions went to the Social Democrats – with the exception of the economics ministry, which has already been promised to Merkel confidante Peter Altmaier, who’s also from Saarland – there were no longer any attractive cabinet positions for her,” said Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin’s Free University.

Landesparteitag der saarländischen CDU
AKK's got this. Source: DPA

The appointment is seen as clearing a path for Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer to take over leadership of the center-right party and possibly the chancellorship – two positions that Chancellor Merkel feels should be held by the same person. The move also counters criticism from a raft of young CDU upstarts who hoped to use the party’s record-low showing in September’s election to both usher in renewal and kick-start their own Berlin aspirations. They criticized Ms. Merkel’s lack of a national digital strategy and her tendency to lean leftward on social issues while highlighting their own modernity and conservatism.

As party secretary, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer will be responsible for leading the day-to-day business of the party and restoring order following the chaos of Ms. Merkel’s months-long attempt to form a government. The CDU will vote on February 26 on a proposed “grand coalition” government with the center-left Social Democrats, the same party it ruled with before the September election. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer will take her seat March 1 following the resignation of Peter Tauber, who was sidelined by illness as Ms. Merkel negotiated with the SPD. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s main task: hammering out a new party platform, as the current CDU platform dates from 2007.

A Catholic, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer is expected to reunite corners of the CDU splintered by Ms. Merkel who was seen at times as too liberal, especially when it came to refugees, and too interventionist when it came to business. The chancellor spearheaded both a return to nuclear power and then away from it following the Fukushima disaster. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer supported Merkel’s refugee policies but also wasn’t afraid to speak out when refugees broke the rules. When a group of male refugees refused food from female servers, she countered: “Then there will be no food.”

“We have to realize that some people don’t feel represented. ”

Thomas Strobl, deputy CDU chair

Important for any modern politician, comments from Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer went viral in 2015. With support for gay marriage and adoption growing, she came out against both in a newspaper interview, citing reasons from a bygone era: “If we change the definition (of marriage) to a long-term relationship between two adults, other demands can’t be ruled out, such as marriage between two relatives or between more than two people. Do we really want that?” Ms. Merkel’s government answered that question when gay marriage became law in the summer of 2017.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer originally dreamed of becoming a midwife and then a teacher before starting her political career as an employee of former Saarland premier Peter Müller. She joined the CDU in 1981 and has been part of the government in Saarland, the country’s second-smallest state behind the city-state of Bremen, since 2000. She held the full gamut of state ministerial positions before becoming its leader in 2011. She’s seen as pragmatic and level-headed, much like the chancellor, and more conservative, which supporters say could help the CDU win back arch-conservatives from the Alternative for Germany, a party for right-wing populists. “We have to realize that some people don’t feel represented,” Thomas Strobl, deputy CDU chair, told newsmagazine Der Spiegel.

Maybe they will now.

Andrew Bulkeley is an editor in Berlin for Handelsblatt Global. Handelsblatt political reporter Daniel Delhaes contributed to this report. To contact the author: a.bulkeley@handelsblattgroup.com

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