Angela Merkel has a new successor for the general secretariat of her party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). On the 7th December, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, also known by her acronym, AKK, won the top office of her party by a small margin.
Although being only an intra-party vote, the CDU elections are very important for the future of Germany, as they not only put forward the country’s likely next Chancellor, but also showcase tensions within the German political spectrum. Indeed, the new party’s leadership has good chances of replacing Merkel as Chancellor in the coming years.
Coming to the fore of the party in 2000, Angela Merkel has been a towering figure in German and European politics. Observing the Social Democrats’ (SPD) stranglehold on the political centre two decades ago, Merkel managed to veer her rather conservative, provincial and Christian party to the left, thus enabling her to govern her country since then. This change of position has never sat well with a part of her party’s base and other conservative Germans who have increasingly been open to Alternative for Germany (AFD). This right-wing party now gathers around 14.5% of popular support according to the latest polls, a few points above the withering SPD, which is Merkel’s long-held but difficult coalition party. Liberal on values, socially-inclined in her economic policies and open to migration, Merkel won the sobriquet of “Mutti Multikulti” -Mother Multiculturalism-, a derogatory term targeting Merkel’s less welcome policies within German conservatives.
For the latter, German “Leitkultur” -dominant culture- is under strain and needs to be bolstered by the state. This is a recurrent theme within Western liberal democracies, which have experienced real or perceived waves of migration over the last decades. Therefore, after nearly two decades as Germany’s chancellor, Merkel understood that her party needed a reboot, including a change of face. This is why she announced on 29th October that she was resigning from her post of general secretary for the CDU and assured that she would not represent herself in Germany’s next general elections, scheduled in 2021. In other words, Merkel’s successor will have the task to decide whether to expand the party’s position within the centre, or veer to the right in order to win back voters lost to AFD.
Born in the Western coal-mining region of Saarland, AKK has studied law and political science, and consecrated herself to politics and her family of 3 children, a point on which she has stressed during her campaign. At 57, AKK can boast of an 18 year long career in local and national politics as she held several positions within the federal state of Saarland, not only as Minister of Interior and Minister President, but also with local ministerial positions catering to the family, culture, prevention, social and women’s affairs. Relatively unknown on the national level, her appointment is considered to be a mandate for continuing Merkel’s liberal legacy, albeit with some changes. Indeed, AKK has for long been considered Merkel’s protege, so much that she has been coined “Mini-Merkel”, a nickname which she has tried to reject.
It is undeniable that AKK was the candidate of continuity for the CDU, and potentially Germany’s leadership. She calls herself a “moderate conservative”, supported Merkel’s open-borders policy during the 2015 migrants crisis, is for a stronger EU and holds a rather socialist economic agenda supportive of a minimum wage and equal pay between genders. Yet, she differs from Merkel on many points. On societal issues, the has positioned herself against dual nationality, abortion and voiced her personal disaccord with homosexual marriage. She has also voiced her support for the military service and advocated for harsher migration policies, including medical checks on minor migrants to verify age and the deportation of refugees whose asylum request has been rejected. All in all, CDU voters seem to have chosen AKK for her right mix of liberalism and conservatism, especially her strong position on the traditional values of marriage and Germany’s Leitkultur.
On many points, AKK represents the right choice for CDU, but not Germany’s chance to end the political stalemate which resulted in a risky coalition government after the late-2017 general elections. Indeed, it is unlikely that the more radical calls for change from AKK’s competitors would have won back voters from the AFD. In spite of being more right of the centre and more vocal defenders of Germany;s Leitkultur, Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn respectively represented the candidate for the elite and the candidate for the well-off conservative youth, none of whom constitute the core of AFD voters.
Spahn, who lost in the first round, is Germany’s 38-year old Health Minister and an open critic of Merkel’s liberal policies, notably on the migration and cultural front. Educated as a banker and holding the positions of Minister of Finance and MP for his land of birth Munster, Spahn might still have appeared as an inexperienced and naive candidate, but will remain an important figure within the party. On the other hand, Merz was more of a heavyweight, as he held the CDU parliamentary floor until 2002, when Merkel ousted him and when he pursued a fruitful career in the private sector. This might exactly have caused his defeat, as the candidate put forward economically liberal policies and was seen by many as a lobbyist candidate for finance. Additionally, the recent probe into the Munich Blackrock offices, a global Asset Management firm in which Merz held a board position, has likely caused much ire within the population. This probe was made in the context of the “cum-ex” tax evasion scandal, which cost 55 billion euros to the European taxpayers between 2007 and 2011.
With more socially-inclined views and a promising legacy in her economically-deprived state of Saarland, AKK can be deemed the right choice for the CDU, as she is likely to be more successful at appealing to the populations of Lander whose economy is not faring as well as the national average. Indeed, Germany’s main problem is that its economic miracle relies on having the largest low-income sector in Western Europe, which means that the lowest 50% of the population earn only 17% of national income, with 1/4 of workers earning less than 10.50 euros an hour. As general secretary who is not only in charge of day-to-day operations but also tasked with crafting the party’s new programme, AKK is likely to play a big role in putting forward the party to new voters whilst reinforcing her party-base.
Yet, her election was won with an unusual narrow win against Friedrich Merz, which shows the unresolved polarisation within the party, one separating the left of centre willing to continue Merkel’s legacy and right of centre desiring of a return to the more traditional and conservative positions of the party. For this side, AKK’s election is a rather disappointing event considering the continuity she represents and her reputation as a person who does not have a clear stance on issues but rather prefers to be a middle-figure. For this feeling to disappear, AKK will have to differentiate herself from Merkel by stressing her more conservative positions in the beginning. She will also have to adopt an inclusive approach within her party in order not to antagonise her former competitors such as Merz. The latter voiced his disappointment for not winning, but congratulated AKK for her win and stressed the need to have more discussions within the party.
Additionally, Merz’s defeat is a guarantee for Merkel that her party is not governed by a rival interested in taking her place before 2021. Wolfgang Schaeuble, the Bundestag’s president, believes that it is highly unlikely that Merkel’s chancellorship will be abbreviated. Yet there are two main risks facing her time in office. First and least likely, is that the CDU’s Bavarian sister-party (CSU) leaves the coalition because of its left of centre positions. Second and more likely, is a departure of the SPD from the coalition. Indeed, this party has suffered a lot from being associated with the CDU and has therefore lost a lot of its voters to parties like AFD and the Greens, who is now the second most popular party in Germany, according to the newest polls. By leaving the coalition a year or two before the elections, the SPD could therefore try to reform its image and reputation, and adopt a more left-leaning approach. This would push Merkel into a minority government and raise the likelihood of a snap election. For now, her party holds 27.9% of voting interest, placing it ahead of other parties but not enough for winning a majority.
During the previous elections, Germany had to wait nearly 6 months before a government could be formed. This raised political uncertainty and had a negative impact on markets. The CDU had tried to form an alliance with the liberal party FDP and the Greens, a project doomed to fail considering the differing political views of these parties. Therefore, AKK’s victory does not bring any guarantee that the CDU will gain enough votes to gain a majority in the next elections, whenever they might be.
ARD, 16 November 2018, “CDU-Hoffungstragter: Wie gerecht ist Friedrich Merz?”
DW, 29 November 2018, “Angela Merkel’s rival Friedrich Merz and the vast, shadowy power of BlackRock”
Quartz, 1 November 2018, “Angela Merkel’s plan to lead Germany until 2021 may not be up to her”
Politico, 14 March 2018, “Meet Germany’s next Chancellor”
Pollytix, 7 December 2018, “German election polling trend”
MrWissen2go, 8 December 2018, “Die neue Kanzlerin Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer?”
Tageschau, 7 December 2018, “Kramp-Karrenbauer ist neue CDU-Chefin”
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