Merkel ally Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer urges new era in German politics

The battle to be the next leader of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats is heating up. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the candidate considered closest to the chancellor personally and politically, has now made her case. 

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman many consider the natural successor to Angela Merkel both in leadership style and political agenda, has set out why she should be the next head of Germany's embattled conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Wednesday's press conference in Berlin was a home game for the CDU general secretary, who staged it in the office representing Saarland, the small southwestern state she governed from 2011 to 2018. The CDU's state party had just unanimously nominated her to lead the national party, and potentially be its chancellor candidate in the next election, which is scheduled for 2021, but could easily come sooner. 

Kramp-Karrenbauer addressed her most obvious problem — the curse and blessing of being Merkel's unofficial favorite — first by highlighting her connections to the chancellor, and then by insisting she has something new to offer.

"This is the end of an era with which I associate many personal relations and personal experiences," she said, before hastily making clear that she would not be staying in the chancellor's shadow. "But that era is over, and such an era can neither simply be continued nor be reversed," she said. "The decisive question is what you do with what you have inherited that is new and better."

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Reawakening the CDU

She also emphasized her recent "listening tour" of the party's grassroots organizations, and reported that the members were full of "pride, frustration, concern and uncertainty" — all of which were understandable feelings, given the CDU's poor election result in the state of Hesse and new opinion polls that suggest that the center-right party, and pragmatic centrist politics in general, are in slow decline.

The CDU's dilemma is that it is not clear which way it should turn to retrieve those lost voters. Though the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has definitely benefited from Merkel's perceived failure to control migration, recent state election results also show that the left-wing environmentalist Green party is also drawing away voters.

Kramp-Karrenbauer's solution appears to emphasize the CDU's reputation for "responsibility" — a word that she mentioned a lot, and which is also perhaps her strongest card, given that she has more government experience than either of her two main opponents: Friedrich Merz, a financial manager who has spent the past nine years out of politics, and Jens Spahn, the 38-year-old health minister with a weakness for populist rhetoric.

Her other tactic to win over the divided electorate was to insist on the CDU's centrist message. She warned against a divisive campaign, expressed the hope that both Merz and Spahn would be part of the leadership even if they didn't win, and insisted that the CDU "wants to remain a party that values the binding above the divisive."

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Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, CDU

Kramp-Karrenbauer, also known as AKK, was Merkel's choice to become general secretary of the CDU in 2018. She is reputedly Merkel's pick as a successor as party leader. AKK headed a CDU-SPD coalition as state premier in the small southwestern state of Saarland before becoming the CDU's general secretary. She is considered a moderate who would continue Merkel's centrist policies.

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Jens Spahn, CDU

The 38-year-old is the youngest and most overtly determined Merkel usurper. He entered the Bundestag in 2002 and became Germany's health minister in 2018. Spahn, who is openly gay, is popular in the CDU's conservative wing. He opposes limited dual citizenship for young foreigners, criticized attempts to loosen laws on advertising abortions and called for banning the Burqa in public.

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Friedrich Merz, CDU

The former leader of the CDU/CSU grouping in the Bundestag has been out of frontline politics since leaving the Bundestag in 2009. But the 62-year-old announced his intention to replace Merkel within hours of the news that she would be stepping down. Merz reportedly fell out with Merkel after she replaced him as CDU/CSU group leader in 2002. He has been a chairman at Blackrock since 2016.

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Armin Laschet, CDU

Laschet became state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2017. His win marked a major defeat for Social Democrats in Germany's 18 million-strong "coal" state. He has ruled out running as CDU head while Merkel remains chancellor. But he has hinted that he may announce his candidacy once Merkel has stood down, which would make it possible to occupy both posts simultaneously.

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Julia Klöckner, CDU

Klöckner became agriculture minister in 2018 and has been CDU chief in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate since 2011. In 1995, before entering politics, she became Germany's "Wine Queen." Like Spahn, she belongs to the CDU's conservative wing. She raised eyebrows in 2016 when she proposed an alternative plan to Merkel's refugee policy.

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Peter Altmaier, CDU

Altmeier, known as "Merkel's bodyguard," has supported the chancellor's centrist policy platform on multiple fronts. Originally from Saarland, Altmaier first worked for the European Union before entering the Bundestag in 1994. The former environment minister turned economy minister is renowned for his kitchen diplomacy and being a stickler for policy detail.

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Ursula von der Leyen, CDU

Von der Leyen became defense minister in 2013 after serving a stint as labor minister. Despite her reform efforts, defense spending remains stubbornly low and the military continues to suffer from widespread equipment shortages. Von der Leyen, who studied in the United States and Britain, supports a larger role for Germany abroad and improving links between national armies in the European Union.

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Volker Bouffier, CDU

Volker Bouffier has been the premier of the central state of Hesse since 2010. He formerly served as the state's interior minister and has twice "won" Big Brother awards from German data privacy advocates for propagating closer surveillance methods by police. The 66-year-old currently heads a CDU-Greens state government in Hesse and is a deputy chairperson in the national CDU executive.

Perennial migration problem

Kramp-Karrenbauer also used her 20-minute speech to address the worry that has most divided the CDU over the past few years: Merkel's decision in September 2015 to open the border with Austria for a group of refugees, and the political fallout that came with it.

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"It's not issue No. 1, but it's there as an issue, and there's no point not talking about it," Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters. "But if you think you can have the discussion with the idea that you can reverse what happened in 2015, we have to be honest ... and say: What happened in 2015 is reality, it's a fact. The second point is, and we have to make this very clear, is that very early after 2015, we worked to make sure that what happened in 2015 would not happen again, something I saw and helped work towards as state premier."

This was a different tone than the one set out by Spahn, who last week called migration "the white elephant in the room" in a guest article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "This debate is neither finished nor resolved" for many people, he wrote, adding that 2015 had left the impression that the state had lost control, images that "won't leave people's heads so easily." Both Spahn and Merz have called for the party to return to its "core values" of security and rule of law.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, meanwhile, emphasized international solutions: The trust in security, she said, "cannot be a question that only begins in a national context."

"We in Germany live in an open Europe, we live in a Schengen Area, and it is our task to decide how this Schengen Area can be completed," she added. "How can it create internal safety, guarantee internal freedom, but organize external security? The question of how to protect ourselves from criminals is not one we can answer in Germany alone."  

There is about a month to go before roughly 1,000 CDU delegates elect their next leader at a party conference in Hamburg.