Merkel ally is new party leader

San Francisco Chronicle - - WORLD - By Geir Moul­son and Ker­stin Sopke Geir Moul­son and Ker­stin Sopke are As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers.

HAM­BURG, Ger­many — Ger­man con­ser­va­tives on Fri­day elected an ally of Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel to be­come her party’s new leader — giv­ing her the chal­lenge of open­ing a new chap­ter and im­prov­ing the party’s elec­toral for­tunes af­ter 18 years un­der Merkel.

An­negret Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, 56, nar­rowly de­feated one-time Merkel ri­val Friedrich Merz at a congress of the cen­ter-right Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union. The re­sult points to pol­icy con­ti­nu­ity, and Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer should be able to work well with Merkel as she serves out her term as chan­cel­lor.

Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer won a runoff vote by 517 votes to Merz’s 482 af­ter a third can­di­date, Health Minister Jens Spahn, was elim­i­nated in a first round of vot­ing.

Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, pre­vi­ously the CDU’s gen­eral sec­re­tary, em­braced Merkel and was quick to call for unity af­ter the vote, say­ing “there is a place in this party” for her de­feated lead­er­ship ri­vals.

Merkel an­nounced in Oc­to­ber she would give up the party’s reins but plans to re­main chan­cel­lor un­til her cur­rent term ends in 2021. How­ever, it’s pos­si­ble that Ger­many’s next gen­eral elec­tion could come ear­lier.

Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer — of­ten known as “AKK” — will be the fa­vorite to run for chan­cel­lor in the next elec­tion, though that isn’t au­to­matic. She be­comes only the eighth leader of the CDU since World War II. All but two of her pre­de­ces­sors served as chan­cel­lor.

She was the clos­est of the three can­di­dates to Merkel’s cen­trist stance, though she is no Merkel clone and has con­sis­tently shown a greater will­ing­ness to cater to con­ser­va­tive rhetoric.

In re­cent weeks, the new party leader sought to put a care­ful dis­tance be­tween her­self and Merkel with­out dis­avow­ing her, say­ing she has had “very lively dis­cus­sions” with the chan­cel­lor on var­i­ous sub­jects.

She has talked tough on im­mi­gra­tion is­sues, propos­ing a life­long en­try ban to Europe for asy­lum-seek­ers con­victed of se­ri­ous crimes. But she has warned that end­lessly re­hash­ing de­bates about Merkel’s de­ci­sion to al­low in large num­bers of mi­grants in 2015 is a turn-off for vot­ers.

Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer’s pitch cen­tered on her own lengthy ex­pe­ri­ence in re­gional gov­ern­ment, which saw her be­come the first woman to be­come a Ger­man state’s in­te­rior minister, or top se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, and serve as gover­nor of west­ern Saar­land state. She gave up that job in Fe­bru­ary to be­come the CDU gen­eral sec­re­tary, in charge of day-to-day strat­egy.

Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer says she knows how to win elec­tions, hav­ing de­fied ex­pec­ta­tions to win re-elec­tion in Saar­land by a wide mar­gin last year.

Merkel has been CDU leader since 2000 and chan­cel­lor since 2005. She has moved her party re­lent­lessly to the cen­ter, drop­ping mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion, ac­cel­er­at­ing Ger­many’s exit from nu­clear en­ergy and in­tro­duc­ing ben­e­fits en­cour­ag­ing fa­thers to look af­ter their young chil­dren. She also al­lowed the in­tro­duc­tion of gay mar­riage, which Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer was more ve­he­ment in op­pos­ing.

In a farewell speech as leader, Merkel said Fri­day that “our CDU to­day is dif­fer­ent from the year 2000, and that is a good thing.”

Merkel was greeted by a long stand­ing ova­tion, with some del­e­gates hold­ing up “Thank you, boss” plac­ards.

Krisztian Bocsi / Bloomberg

An­negret Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer (left) waves to party mem­bers while stand­ing next to Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel. She is the fa­vorite to suc­ceed Merkel.

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