“THE HARDEST births produce the most beautiful children,” quipped Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2011, after a tricky parliamentary process had elevated her to the top job in the Saarland, a small state in south-west Germany. If so, AKK, as she is universally known, is sitting pretty. On December 7th, at a party congress in Hamburg, she was elected leader of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by the slimmest of margins. Some supporters of her rival, Friedrich Merz, a former CDU parliamentary leader whose guerrilla campaign had electrified the party’s conservative old guard, vowed to quit the party in disgust. It was quite the ride for a genteel party unused to the twists and turns of internal democracy.
Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer becomes only the fourth person to lead the CDU in 45 years. For now she will cohabit with her ally, Angela Merkel, who has taken the unusual decision to yield the party leadership while remaining chancellor—perhaps until her term expires in 2021. In February Mrs Merkel plucked Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer from the Saarland to appoint her CDU secretary-general, a clear sign that a successor was being groomed. About time, muttered some; Mrs Merkel had run the country since 2005 and the party for five years more. Many felt her split-the-difference centrism sucked the life out of politics.
Such folk were unlikely to take to Mrs Merkel’s anointed successor. Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer’s first challenge has thus been to rebut the charge that she is merely a clone of the chancellor. The two women indeed share a low-key style and an instinct for consensus-building. CDU members who wanted a return to a flintier conservatism are right to feel defeated.
But the comparison can be overdone, for Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has a distinctive political outlook. Her “social market” philosophy is shaped by her experiences in a state ravaged by deindustrialisation: she backs minimum wages and does not share the tax-cutting zeal of some in the CDU. She has a Catholic’s view of matters like gay marriage and gene-editing, and tougher instincts than her mentor on immigration and security. Nor have the two always seen eye-to-eye, notes Kristina Dunz, co-author of “I Can, I Want and I Will”, an AKK biography; in 2012 Mrs Merkel was furious when Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer abruptly ended her coalition arrangement in Saarland. “I’d be very surprised if anyone is calling her ‘mini-Merkel’ in a year,” says Jo Leinen, an MEP from the Saarland who has known Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer for decades.
Another important difference, says an ally, is that Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer confronts tricky issues head-on, whereas Mrs Merkel dithers until her hand is forced. Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer fears that disputes over the chancellor’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015-16, which she backed, could poison the party for a generation. In the new year she will host a gathering of CDU local and state politicians to take stock of what worked and what did not during that crisis.
Her supporters hope such moves will assist her goal of restoring the CDU’s flagging fortunes. In 2017 Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer cruised to re-election in the Saarland with over 40% of the vote, a figure that has taken on totemic significance in a party lately hovering at around 30% in a fractured political landscape. A CDU woman through and through—she joined at 19, and worked her way up through endless committees and ministerial posts—she is an instinctive big-tenter who will look left and right for votes. In Hamburg she called the CDU the “last unicorn” in Europe, contrasting it with moribund mainstream parties elsewhere. Polls suggest she has broad appeal. One taken just after her win recorded a bump in CDU support.
Two tests lie ahead. The first is at the ballot box. If the CDU does well in European and state elections in 2019, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer will be primed to become its candidate to take over from Mrs Merkel, who will quit no later than the next general election. If it falters, others could step in. One name in the mix is Armin Laschet, minister-president of North-Rhine Westphalia.
Yet the CDU may not be master of its fate. The flailing Social Democratic Party (SPD), its junior coalition partner, had hoped a win for Mr Merz would allow it to reoccupy the centre ground of German politics. The SPD now faces tough questions. If it quits the coalition next year, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer could face a general election sooner than she expected. In the meantime, the SPD will give her headaches, starting with rows over a ban on abortion advertising, which it has sought to scrap, and the personal “solidarity” tax for Germany’s east, which it wants to keep.
Either way, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer must start to craft distinctive policies on matters that the next government cannot avoid, such as tax, pensions, energy and defence. She needs to deepen her ties in European political networks beyond France, and to assemble the rudiments of a foreign policy. And then there is the CDU awkward squad to deal with. In Hamburg Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer held out an olive branch by offering the post of CDU secretary-general (the job she had just vacated) to Paul Ziemiak, head of its conservative youth wing. Jens Spahn, the right-wing health minister, who came third in the CDU race, retains fierce ambitions. And the search is on to find a nice job for Mr Merz.
Yet fears of a rupture may be overdone. More than any other party, the CDU, which has held the chancellery for 50 of the past 70 years, tends to rally behind its leaders, especially if they are proven vote-winners. It was that insight that meant that an unassuming woman who took over the party leadership in 2000, amid the greatest of scepticism, is now executing an exit strategy entirely of her own design.