When Chancellor Angela Merkel plucked Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer out of obscurity earlier this year and anointed the longtime provincial politician as her likely successor by giving her the No. 2 position in her center-right party, it was smiles all around. It seemed at long last Merkel was ready to plan a dignified exit after a dozen years as chancellor.
But after her conservative bloc suffered devastating losses in two state elections this fall, being Merkel’s hand-picked choice has become something of a poisoned apple. Suddenly, it seems, the chancellor has outlived her welcome and is being virtually hounded out of office.
Merkel’s controversial decision in 2015 to welcome a million refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to Germany has become an albatross around her neck, forcing her now to step down from the party leadership.
But Kramp-Karrenbauer, who fully supported the chancellor’s humanitarian decision at the time, reaps much of the same opprobrium as she tries to follow the path mapped out by her mentor as a candidate to take over the party chairmanship, paving the way to run for chancellor.
Merz’s return derails succession plans
It is not only the refugee issue that Kramp-Karrenbauer inherits, but the entire legacy of Merkel’s long tenure. Over the years, the chancellor pushed her sometimes reluctant Christian Democrats (CDU) to the center. While this marginalized the Social Democrats, it also left an opening on the right for the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) to rise up and cripple the center-right party.
So Kramp-Karrenbauer finds herself making a bid for party leadership as a mini-Merkel just when the party wants to turn away from Mutti and return to its conservative roots. And, like a rabbit out of a hat, one of Merkel’s longtime party rivals has popped up to derail the chancellor’s succession plan.
Friedrich Merz, once a rising star in the party until Merkel forced him out as parliamentary floor leader in 2002, has dramatically returned from self-imposed political exile and declared himself a candidate for the party chair, instantly becoming the frontrunner for the long-suffering conservatives in the party.
So AKK, as she is known, finds herself no longer a shoo-in for the top party job, but instead running second or even third in a hotly contested race.
Kramp-Karrenbauer led the CDU state chapter in Saarland, a tiny state on the French border that at times was part of France. Among the 16 German states, only the city-state of Bremen has fewer people than Saarland with its million residents.
She became state premier shortly after taking charge of the party in 2011, leading the CDU to successful re-election as the largest party in 2012 and 2017. Like Merkel at the federal level, she led state governments in a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats.
While her success at the state level earned her respect in the party, she was little-known to the German public at large — let alone to anyone outside Germany — until Merkel brought her to Berlin this year.
But it’s not looking like the year for a mini-Merkel to take the reins of a reeling CDU. In her plaidoyer for the chairmanship post, Kramp-Karrenbauer said she’s “not conducting a campaign against anyone, but putting out there how the next chapter should look.”
Unfortunately for her, it’s looking a lot like a sequel to the last chapter. The combination of informality and earnestness that served her well in provincial Saarland plays less well at a national level, where voters expect more stature and gravitas.
The ‘feel-good’ candidate
Next to the urbane and polished Merz, who has made a fortune in business during his exile, Kramp-Karrenbauer comes across as somewhat frumpy, with a whiff of the provinces still attached to her.
In the battle with Merz and a third candidate, Health Minister Jens Spahn, Kramp-Karrenbauer is the “feel-good” candidate. In her presentation Wednesday, she was conciliatory, emphasizing she wants to unite the party, not divide it. She wants to push for “both/and” policies, rather than “either/or.”
Her policy goals are preserving prosperity for the future, which entails above all a faster transition to digital. She wants people to feel safe. Though statistics are saying crime is down strongly, that’s not the way voters feel now. And she wants people to feel at home, which means realizing that Germany has become much more diverse.
After she was named general secretary, Kramp-Karrenbauer went on a listening tour of the party. It was another stage in her successful networking. She revamped party committees to start generating policy ideas instead of just taking orders from the government.
But her positions in the party as deputy chief of the women’s league and a member of the CDA labor wing are at odds with a party that after Merkel’s long tenure seems to be pining for a male leader and wants to return to its business roots.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s trump card is that she knows how to win elections and form a government, experience her two rivals cannot bring to the table, even if her successes were in tiny Saarland.
Daniel Delhaes covers the CDU for Handelsblatt. Jan Hildebrand is deputy bureau chief in Berlin. Christian Rothenberg, a political reporter, also contributed to this story. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com