Angela Merkel, the acting German chancellor, pledged to more than 1,000 delegates of her Christian Democratic Union on Monday that she would renew the conservative party. And amid criticism from members of the CDU’s right flank, she promised to stand by core party positions such as not raising taxes or taking on new debt.
As expected, delegates at the CDU party conference in Berlin approved the grand coalition agreement with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) by a wide margin, with only 27 of the 975 delegates voting against it. Their approval brings Ms. Merkel a step closer to a fourth term as chancellor of Europe’s biggest economy.
Delegates also approved the appointment of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as CDU general secretary, a role in which she serves as both party administrator and spokesperson. The appointment is seen as a clearing a path for the 55-year-old former state premier of Saarland to take over leadership of the center-right party and possibly the chancellorship – two positions that Ms. Merkel feels should be held by the same person.
In a stirring speech that drew robust applause, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said she would pursue Ms. Merkel’s centrist course and fight to win back voters lost to the Alternative for Germany, a populist party on the far right. A Catholic from western Germany, she is socially conservative and known for opposing gay marriage, yet a strong supporter of the minimum wage and workers’ rights. She won nearly 99 percent of the delegates' votes.
I’m the only one in this team who is clearly over 60. Angela Merkel, Acting Chancellor
After the CDU’s worst-ever election result last September, Ms. Merkel clearly heeded the rumbling in her party for fresh blood and new direction by handpicking a younger lineup of party members for seats in a new German cabinet. The names, including Jens Spahn, one of her fiercest critics in her own party, were announced on Sunday ahead of the party congress. Ms. Merkel also followed through on a promise to have an even balance of men and women in the new government.
With the 63-year-old politician from the former East Germany hoping to see through her fourth and last term as chancellor, her selections are being closely scrutinized for signs of how a post-Merkel party could look. Her immediate fate and that of her appointed cabinet members, however, lies in the hands of more than 460,000 SPD members who have until the end of the week to vote in an internal referendum on whether to renew their coalition with the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Ms. Merkel has been under intense fire from within her party for the poor performance in September’s elections and for a coalition deal that gives three top ministries – finance, foreign and labor – to the center-left SPD. In Berlin, she defended herself against criticism of relinquishing the posts after marathon negotiations this month. She said she had not been prepared to let the talks fail by insisting on the finance portfolio. "Should we have allowed the deal to fail just because of this one position?" she asked. "My answer is no." The weakened party leader received noticeably less applause when she argued that the economics ministry, which the CDU would control, was a worthy replacement.
In making her cabinet picks, the party head said she tried to strike a balance between youthful energy and experience. “I’m the only one in this team who is clearly over 60,” she told the media. The most notable change among the six cabinet posts is Mr. Spahn, the 37-year-old flag-bearer for the party’s right wing. His elevation to the post of health minister is viewed as a signal to the CDU’s disgruntled flank that the party leadership is listening to their concerns. He has been a frank critic of Ms. Merkel’s centrist course and has fiercely attacked her open-door refugee policy.
Mr. Spahn has been a deputy finance minister since 2015 and before that, served as the CDU’s health expert. It is the first time he has been offered a ministry job, which is typically seen as a stepping stone to a higher political function, such as party chair or chancellor candidate. Mr. Spahn has made little secret of his ambitions to rise to the top.
Yet the health ministry is hardly the most glamorous post, and by bringing Mr. Spahn on board as a cabinet member, Ms. Merkel may give her chief critic few opportunities to confront her. His appointment could also be the beginning of a lively succession battle between him and Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer.
Another important appointment is Peter Altmaier as economics minister. Mr. Altmaier currently serves in the twin role as head of the chancellery and acting finance minister (he replaced Wolfgang Schäuble who took over as Bundestag president). The 59-year-old is one of Ms. Merkel’s closest allies, having taken on a number of tough jobs for the chancellor, such as coordinating the 2015-2016 refugee crisis. He also wrote the CDU’s manifesto in last year’s election.
Mr. Altmaier will be replaced as Ms. Merkel’s chief of staff by Helge Braun, a senior chancellery aide who also played a big role in crafting a response to the refugee crisis. Mr. Braun previously worked as a doctor and hospital anesthetist before entering politics.
Despite heavy criticism of her stewardship of the defense ministry, Ursula von der Leyen will hang on to her job. The 59-year old politician, who also studied medicine, has long been considered a potential successor to Ms. Merkel, having been a close ally since the chancellor’s first government in 2005. But the mother of seven has seen her star fade of late, most recently after a scathing internal government report of the German armed forces being alarmingly under-equipped.
Julia Klöchner, the 45-year-old CDU party leader in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, will take over as agriculture minister. A member of Ms. Merkel’s team of coalition negotiators, she has been seeking a national profile since losing the state election in 2016 to the Social Democrats.
A surprise appointment is Anja Karliczek as education minister. The 46-year-old mother of three from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia has been a lawmaker in the Bundestag since 2013. She trained in a bank before receiving a degree in hotel management.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Daniel Delhaes of Handelsblatt's Berlin office contributed to this story. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]