The list of challenges facing Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer seems almost as long as the syllables in her name. The Christian Democratic Union’s new general secretary is off on a mission to renew Germany’s ruling party and – even if she won’t admit it publicly – to position herself as heir to Angela Merkel as party chair and chancellor candidate.
The 55-year-old politician was recently in Constance, southern Germany, on the first of 40 “listening tours” across Germany. She wants to meet with CDU members in smaller towns and cities and hear their views on modernizing the party. The kickoff event marked a departure from the larger traditional meetings between the party’s leadership and the rank and file. “This is no regional conference,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer told supporters. “We’re not here for you to criticize us and us to tell you why you’re wrong.”
Her candor caught many by surprise. As did many of her other gestures, like the unpretentious stroll through the rustic German room, shaking hands and engaging in small talk.
“We’re not here for you to criticize us and us to tell you why you’re wrong.” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, CDU general secretary
Listening tours were among the arsenal of tactics the down-to-earth politician used to build a power base of supporters in her tough but ultimately successful bid for state premier of Saarland. Some see her latest tours and those with “answers” to follow in 2020 as similar moves to create networks and enhance her reputation as the CDU’s next hope to secure the chancellery. Coming from a small state with only around 1 million voters, she needs all the national exposure she can get.
Many already like what they see – a Roman Catholic career politician who married at 22 and the main breadwinner in a family where the husband left his job as a mining engineer to raise their three children. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, dubbed AKK by the German media, has seen her star rise since becoming Saarland's first female leader.
Even though chancellors lack the power to determine their successors, they certainly can give their favorite a boost. Ms. Merkel, in her fourth and most likely last term, sees in the new general secretary someone with strong negotiating skills and her own political acumen, someone with the right mix of liberalism and conservatism to unite a restive party base and, most importantly, to protect her legacy
Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer is viewed in the CDU as a unifying figure, liked by the party’s left and right wings. Her support for the minimum wage and workers’ rights – in a gritty industrial region built on coal and steel – has won her the respect of those on the left. Her championing of family values and opposition to gay marriage are appreciated by the those on the right.
Although a supporter of Ms. Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees for humanitarian reasons, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has insisted they accept the values of their host nation. One highly cited example was her position on male Muslim refugees who refused to accept food from female volunteers; she said they should go hungry. She has also pushed hard for the federal government to deport asylum seekers whose applications are rejected. That’s the kind of hardliner talk the party’s staunch conservatives want to hear.
Such broad support across the party will be helpful as Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer seeks to settle a split between those members, like Health Minister Jens Spahn, who want the party to shift to the right to counter the rise of the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and those who prefer Ms. Merkel’s centrist course. She is also tasked with drafting a new party program that will set the course for the Christian Democrats for years go to come.