Germany: “Mini-Merkel” Takes Over

Angela Merkel chooses a successor to follow in her footsteps.

Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union has chosen its secretary-general, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, as its new leader, anointing Angela Merkel’s preferred candidate at the end of Merkel’s 18-year reign as the head of the party.

AKK, as she is known—since even many Germans find her name cumbersome—is the former premier of the small western state of Saarland. She became the CDU’s number two last February in preparation for the succession. But she only narrowly beat Friedrich Merz, a center-right millionaire lawyer, in a run-off vote in Hamburg for the party leadership, receiving 517 of 999 votes (Merz got 482 votes).

Often called “mini-Merkel,” Kramp-Karrenbauer leans more conservative than her predecessor. In 2017, she voted against gay marriage. She has argued that convicted asylum seekers should be expelled, not just from Germany but from Europe’s entire Schengen zone, and has floated the idea of reintroducing a year of national service to boost social cohesion.

The slogan for Merkel’s last congress as party leader was “Zsammenführen.Und zusammen führen,” a play on words that roughly translates as “Bring together. And lead together.” That is certainly Merkel’s plan, as she hopes that Kramp-Karrenbauer’s appointment will shore up her own position as chancellor, possibly until the Bundestag elections in 2021. However, Merkel was careful not to officially endorse Kramp-Karrenbauer’s candidacy, despite obvious pleasure at her success, thereby countering any claims of manipulation from the Merz camp.

Merkel may have plans for leadership in tandem, but the fact that Kramp-Karrenbauer came out on top in the CDU’s first competitive leadership election since 1971 should help her put her own stamp on the party. Many observers say Kramp-Karrenbauer needs to find new ways of reaching out to more conservative and moderate voters, following the collapse of the CDU vote—and that of its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union—in recent state elections in Hesse and Bavaria, alongside the rise of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany. As electorates across Europe gravitate toward the extremes, she faces an uphill task.