Germany’s Merkel Installs Favorite as Successor

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is seen as the best candidate to defend Angela Merkel’s legacy.

Prime Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of Saarland attends a session of the Bundesrat in Berlin, Germany, July 10, 2015
Prime Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of Saarland attends a session of the Bundesrat in Berlin, Germany, July 10, 2015 (Bundesrat/Henning Schacht)

Angela Merkel has put Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the former prime minister of Saarland, on track to succeed her as chancellor of Germany.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, a relative moderate, defeated the more right-wing Friedrich Merz with 517 to 482 votes at a congress of their Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Hamburg.

Merkel’s legacy

Kramp-Karrenbauer was seen as the best candidate to defend Merkel’s legacy: making the CDU electable to young people, women and urban voters.

Jeremy Cliffe of The Economist writes on Twitter:

Merkel has been written off, time and again, by (male) UK/US commentators. But she now stands a decent chance of leaving office on her own terms after fourteen-sixteen years and with her preferred successor lined up as a replacement.

However, Kramp-Karrenbauer is not a Merkel clone. Unlike the outgoing party leader, she was an early advocate of introducing a national minimum wage — which also put her at odds with Merz’ free-market approach.

On the other hand, she opposed marriage equality when Merkel allowed a free vote in parliament that legalized gay marriage.

Desire for change

Kramp-Karrenbauer was the favorite of CDU voters, but the fact that she won by only 35 votes shows there is also a desire for change in the party.

Merz portrayed himself as the candidate best suited to win back conservative voters from the far-right Alternative. I’m not so sure. With his liberal economic program, fairly pro-European views and somewhat out-of-touch attitude, he might not have been the perfect candidate to appeal to reactionary voters who feel left behind in the modern Germany.

Merkel’s counterintuitive response to the Alternative’s populist challenge was to shift further to the left. Rather than advertise a harder line on immigration — which the party has taken — Merkel urged Christian Democrats to do better on housing, pay and pensions, identifying those as the issues that truly motive voters.

Balancing act

The CDU hasn’t lost voters to the Alternative alone. It has also lost center-right voters to the liberal Free Democrats and center-left voters to the Greens — who could overtake the Social Democrats as Germany’s second party in the next election.

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s challenge will be to maintain the balancing act Merkel perfected: keeping the CDU firmly in the center of German politics.

What’s next?

  • Merkel has said she is serving out her present term as chancellor, which expires in 2021, but it seems likely she will step down earlier to make way for Kramp-Karrenbauer.
  • The Social Democrats, the other half of Germany’s grand coalition, are down in the polls and may not welcome early elections.