BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown her conservative party that she’s still very much in charge and keen to shape its future, installing a close ally who’s popular in her own right in a top party post following weeks of muttering over a difficult coalition deal.
A congress of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is expected to elect Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on Monday as the party’s general secretary, a week after the chancellor unveiled her surprise choice. The 55-year-old’s new job, for which she is stepping down as governor of Saarland state, could put her in a position to fill Merkel’s shoes one day — if she plays her cards right.
The change comes at a critical time for the CDU following a lacklustre election showing in September. That election saw the nationalist, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party win seats in parliament for the first time, drawing some votes from conservatives fed up with a leftward drift under Merkel.
The chancellor has also just concluded her third coalition deal with the centre-left Social Democrats, handing them the powerful finance ministry — to the dismay of many conservatives. That prompted unusually loud public grousing, coupled with calls for fresh faces in the Cabinet.
The general secretary, a position that was Merkel’s own stepping stone to the party leadership back in 2000, is responsible for day-to-day operations, election campaigns and generally making the party’s voice heard in a crowded political landscape.
“Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer could bring back former CDU members’ and voters’ feeling of having a political home,” the conservative-leaning Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote this week. “But she must rebut the suspicion that she was brought into the office of general secretary as Angela Merkel 2.0.”
The decision to put forward Kramp-Karrenbauer took a step toward acknowledging the pressure for renewal, though AKK — as she is often known — is only eight years younger than Merkel. Kramp-Karrenbauer says one of her main jobs will be to rework the party’s program, though broadly in line with Merkel’s emphasis on the centre ground.
“It must be a very broad centre, and I think parties diminish themselves if they only think about who they can run after,” she told ZDF television this week. “Our job must be to take the questions people have to the democratic centre, and make them an offer — not to force them to seek the answers elsewhere.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer has, however, shown a greater willingness than the chancellor to cater to conservative rhetoric, which could be an important attribute now.
A Catholic, she opposed legalizing gay marriage in 2017. In a largely symbolic gesture last year, she announced that she would prevent rallies by Turkish government officials in Saarland before that country’s constitutional referendum.
From 2000 to 2005, she was the first woman to serve as a German state’s interior minister, or top security official, later taking charge of the education and labour ministries.
She also has a taste for a political gamble that Merkel has lacked in recent years. Kramp-Karrenbauer had been governor for a few months when, in 2012, she ended a rickety three-way coalition with the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats over the latter’s infighting. She joked that she risked becoming Germany’s shortest-serving governor, “but the one with the longest name.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s gamble paid off. She won the resulting election and formed a coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats that has endured since. Her re-election last year was the first of a series of events that sapped then-Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz’s challenge to Merkel.
Now, “she is taking a courageous step,” said Heribert Prantl, a senior editor at the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “She is entering party headquarters without a network, she is not in parliament; she is taking a risk. The party appreciates that readiness to take a risk.”