Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a close ally of Angela Merkel, won a tight race to succeed her as party leader Friday, seeing off a longtime rival of the German chancellor. The contest, which required a runoff vote to secure a 52-percent majority for AKK as she is known, is expected to increase the likelihood that Merkel will be able to see out her fourth term until 2021.
AKK, 56, pledged to maintain continuity after 18 years of Merkel at the helm while opening up the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to more grassroots democracy. In a brief, upbeat address before the vote that brought many delegates to their feet, she called on the party to reject the politics of fear as the far-right makes inroads in Germany and Europe.
“We must have the courage to stay the course against the Zeitgeist,” she said. AKK beat corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz, 63, who had quit politics in 2009 after losing a power struggle against Merkel and long nursed a grudge against the more centrist chancellor.
The third candidate vocal Merkel critic and current health minister Jens Spahn lost in the first round. Merkel, 64, had earlier mounted a staunch defence of her moderate course since becoming chancellor in 2005.
Accepting a lengthy standing ovation from delegates, many tearful and holding “Thanks, boss” placards aloft, a visibly moved Merkel said the party had won four national elections under her by holding fast to its principles.
“In difficult times we shouldn’t forget our Christian and democratic stance,” she said.
‘Show what we’ve got’
Pointing to the rise of populism worldwide and what she called a breakdown of shared Western values, Merkel said the order she had championed was at risk.
“Whether it’s the rejection of multilateralism, the return to nationalism, the reduction of international cooperation to deal-making or threatened trade wars… hybrid warfare, destabilisation of societies with fake news or the future of our EU we Christian Democrats must show in the face of all these challenges what we’ve got,” she said.
Handpicked by Merkel as general secretary of the party in February, AKK was immediately seen as the chancellor’s anointed crown princess.
Her modest style, even temper and largely middle-of-the-road policies mirror Merkel’s, but each woman is respected for the flash of steel they have shown at decisive moments.
While she has called for tougher policies on refugees who commit crimes, AKK firmly backed Merkel’s fateful 2015 decision to welcome more than one million asylum-seekers from crisis zones such as Syria and Iraq.
She won a tough re-election battle in her native Saarland state on the French border in 2017, briefly halting a series of poll debacles for the CDU as it was racked by infighting over the refugee influx.
During her campaign to succeed Merkel as party leader, she repeatedly noted that she was able to blunt an onslaught by the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party as it picked up seats in state after state.
Merkel has led Germany since 2005, and moved the party and country steadily toward the political centre. More generous family leave, an exit from nuclear power and an end to military conscription are among her signature policies.
While Merkel remains popular, AKK inherits a diminished party which is currently polling at roughly 30 percent, far below the about 40 percent enjoyed during Merkel’s heyday. The CDU has bled support to the right in the form of the AfD, as well as to the resurgent Greens.
Meanwhile Germany’s oldest party, the Social Democrats (SPD) — junior partners in Merkel’s “grand coalition” are mired in an even deeper crisis. Regardless of which course the CDU charts, it is ironically the SPD that could decide Merkel’s fate.
The party has long languished in Merkel’s shadow and could well decide to jump ship before 2021 to seek to avert further vote debacles a move that would almost certainly trigger new elections.