Possible heirs but few graces line up for Angela Merkel’s job
Known as AKK, CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer often seems ill-a-ease and is not a great teller of jokes
Berlin — It’s 2am at a hotel bar in Hamburg when Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer spots her rival for the German chancellorship laughing with a group of reporters in the lobby.
They fall quiet for a moment. She shoots them a suspicious glance. Maybe she thinks that Armin Laschet, a powerful state premier, is briefing against her in his subtle, ironic style. If so, she’s right.
Kramp-Karrenbauer retreats to a dark corner with her advisers and soon after goes upstairs as the party continues.
It’s typical of her faltering leadership of the governing Christian Democrats (CDU): ill-at-ease, isolated, and struggling for relevance. It was the case in Hamburg, where she’d gathered the inner-circle of her party last month. And it was on display again this week when a local CDU chapter threw its lot in with right-wing extremists to elect another state premier in the former-communist east.
This latest debacle was, as Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, “unforgivable”. And it’s one that might stick to Kramp-Karrenbauer.
In the 14 months since she succeeded her one-time mentor as head of the CDU, the woman otherwise known as AKK has been hurt by a series of gaffes and ill-judged jokes while struggling to define what she stands for. The brief alliance between the CDU and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the Thuringia state legislature was probably her biggest humiliation.
As her party and her rivals erupted in protest on Wednesday afternoon, Kramp-Karrenbauer was caught off guard on a flight to Strasbourg and then unable, at first, to get state leader Mike Mohring on the phone. The impression was of a party not under control.
Facing public attack from influential CDU figures, Kramp-Karrenbauer will meet with the party leadership on Friday in Berlin to discuss possible consequences. On Saturday, she faces talks with the CDU’s coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SDP), who were outraged by the episode.
In theory, Kramp-Karrenbauer still holds the upper hand in the battle to become the CDU’s candidate for the chancellorship next year when Merkel steps aside. As party leader, she gets to choose who will fight the election.
“I’m the one who is responsible for driving the whole process forward,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Davos last month. “I’m concentrating on that.”
Merkel in tears
In practice, officials at CDU headquarters in Berlin are increasingly worried that their leader won’t be a viable candidate, according to one person with knowledge of their thinking. If she decides that ploughing on will only end in irreparable political damage, she may step aside voluntarily.
The last CDU chief to decide she couldn’t fight an election was Merkel herself. In 2002, she traveled to Bavaria to offer the candidacy to one of Markus Söder’s predecessors, Edmund Stoiber.
Merkel recovered from that major setback to win the next four elections. But according to a person familiar with the events, as she left the meeting with Stoiber in her official car, the chancellor broke down and sobbed.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s fundamental problem is her polling. In a recent survey by public broadcaster ARD, only 19% of respondents thought she would make a good candidate. And that’s after an all-out push to raise her profile.
Her decision to become defence minister in July was widely interpreted as an effort to increase her media presence. Since then, she has been much more visible, pictured with troops in Afghanistan or Mali and representing Germany at Nato. But the polls have barely budged.
The fear at CDU headquarters is that voters just don’t like her, one official said.
Merkel too has cooled on her one-time protégé, according to a party official familiar with her thinking.
Kramp-Karrenbauer was the chancellor’s pick to succeed her as party chief. But when the younger woman ran into trouble during her first months in charge, she tried to force Merkel to hand over the chancellorship too. The power grab failed and Kramp-Karrenbauer lost her most important supporter.
Merkel isn’t trying to undermine Kramp-Karrenbauer, the official said, but she won’t do anything to help her either. Indeed, when Merkel flew to the US for an official visit in September, the defence minister was shunted off the chancellor’s government plane at the last minute and forced to catch her own flight to meet US defence secretary Mark Esper.
Kramp-Karrenbauer is doing all she can to avoid another clash with the chancellor. Her advisers have pushed her to take a different line from Merkel on a recent pension issue to define herself, but the party chief chose to stay quiet, according to one official with knowledge of the matter.
Meanwhile, Laschet isn’t the only one positioning himself in case she does eventually step aside.
Former caucus leader Friedrich Merz, the conservatives favourite, will quit his job at BlackRock next month to focus on his political career, according to Handelsblatt. Jens Spahn, the health minister, is also waiting in the wings. Both were beaten by Kramp-Karrenbauer when she won the leadership in 2018.
Söder, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister group, outshone Kramp-Karrenbauer at the party conference in December and is now seen as another contender.
All of them are watching to see just how much punishment the party leader is prepared to take.