Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a 56-year-old Catholic and former state premier of Saarland, won the historic race to succeed Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union. The new leader of the center-right conservatives won with a majority of 51.75 percent in the second round of voting, beating Friedrich Merz, who received 48.25 percent.
This was the first time in 47 years that CDU delegates at the party’s annual meeting in Hamburg could vote between several contenders for the top job. The third candidate, Jens Spahn, received almost 16 percent of the votes in the first round of voting.
After five weeks of campaigning, Kramp-Karrenbauer will have to muster the support of all factions in the party, which Merkel has led since 2000. The chancellor decided to give up the party’s leadership after the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, suffered painful electoral losses in two German states. Her withdrawal, following the rise of the Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigrant party, marked a decline of her political powers.
Kramp-Karrenbauer is now the person most likely to become the next chancellor of Europe’s largest economy when Merkel resigns in fall 2021 – or earlier if she is forced out of office by internal political strife or should her coalition with the Social Democrats collapse. Kramp-Karrenbauer will also shape German policies in the euro zone and in global politics and she could set different accents than Merkel in dealing with Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, immigration and indebted euro-zone countries, for instance.
The new party leader, handpicked by Merkel in February to be the CDU’s general secretary, is expected to broadly continue the chancellor’s policies and style, although she has been tougher on immigration than Merkel. AKK, for instance, proposed expelling refugees from the EU if they sexually harass women and wants to confine immigrants in closed centers if their asylum application has been rejected.
Both Merkel, 64, and AKK are traditional on family values, rejecting gay marriage, but are open to left-leaning ideas when it comes to the economy. Temperamentally, both choose to de-escalate and compromise, rather than polarize. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who studied law and political science, immediately asked Merz and Spahn to remain available for the party. They both pledged their support to a visibly touched AKK.
At the meeting in Hamburg, Kramp-Karrenbauer held an energetic plea to defend traditional, Christian values and the need to have a strong government. "We want citizens who actively participate in society, who know they have rights but also duties," she said. “We need a government which is capable not only of delivering the perspectives with sound political skills, but also implements these locally."
She also replied to critics, who had dubbed her a Merkel clone. "I have read much about what I am and who I am: Mini, a copy, a ‘continuation’ [of the status quo],” Kramp-Karrenbauer said. "I stand here as a mother of three, who knows how difficult it is to combine family and work. I stand here as a former interior minister, former education minister, former social affairs minister and former state premier who has served the country for over 18 years."
In her last speech as party chair, Merkel did not endorse any of the candidates, but she said that Kramp-Karrenbauer managed to win elections in her state of Saarland with more than 40 percent of the votes. This subtle comment confirmed Merkel’s soft spot for AKK, who is following a similar career path to the chancellor. Merkel also first started as general secretary, was elected party leader and then Germany’s leader in 2005.
Gilbert Kreijger is an editor with Handelsblatt Today. To contact him: [email protected]