Ger­man con­ser­va­tives choose a key Merkel ally as next party leader


HAM­BURG — Af­ter a year in which she was re­peat­edly writ­ten off as po­lit­i­cally dead, Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel was given new life and a more se­cure legacy Fri­day when her fel­low con­ser­va­tives picked her close ally and pre­ferred suc­ces­sor to take over as party leader.

The se­lec­tion of An­negret Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, a 56-yearold mod­er­ate whose un­flashy and con­sen­sual style re­sem­ble Merkel’s own, sig­naled a pref­er­ence for con­ti­nu­ity over rad­i­cal change among mem­bers of the rul­ing Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU).

Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer now be­comes the de facto chan­cel­lor-in­wait­ing, though it may be sev­eral years be­fore she as­cends to the na­tion’s top of­fice. Merkel has said she in­tends to stay un­til 2021, and with her ally as party leader, that is at least pos­si­ble.

Merkel’s hold on power would have been dra­mat­i­cally weaker had the party picked the other main con­tender, 63-year-old cor­po­rate chief­tain Friedrich Merz. He had rep­re­sented for many sup­port­ers a chance to re­turn the CDU to its con­ser­va­tive roots af­ter 18 years in which Merkel has steered the party to the cen­ter — and even the left.

Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer won Fri­day’s vote at the CDU’s an­nual con­ven­tion in the sec­ond round of bal­lot­ing, ek­ing out a bare ma­jor­ity in a closely di­vided party. The fi­nal tally was 517 votes for Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer and 482 for Merz af­ter a third can­di­date, Health Minister Jens Spahn, had been elim­i­nated.

The re­sult elec­tri­fied the hall and prompted an un­usual dis­play of ela­tion from a nor­mally stoic Merkel: She wel­comed Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer to the stage with a hug and squeezed her shoul­ders, all the while beam­ing.

A vis­i­bly moved Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer wiped away tears and cel­e­brated with a speech ap­peal­ing to party unity, vow­ing to “keep the cen­ter strong.” Then, in line with her rep­u­ta­tion for in­clu­sive­ness, she in­vited her ri­vals to share the stage.

In a con­cil­ia­tory con­ces­sion speech that re­flected the friendly tone of the cam­paign, Merz urged his sup­port­ers to “use all your strength to back AKK.”

Merkel has been a gi­ant not only of Ger­man pol­i­tics but also of Euro­pean and world af­fairs. She has trans­formed the coun­try dur­ing her ten­ure and played a cen­tral role in re­solv­ing a seem­ingly end­less string of in­ter­na­tional crises.

Now she has a chance at the sort of sat­is­fy­ing end to a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer that has eluded other ma­jor world lead­ers, in­clud­ing her friend for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama: an am­i­ca­ble trans­fer of power to a suc­ces­sor of her choice, one likely to pro­tect her legacy.

In Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, she gets a partner who shares both her outlook and her style. Last spring, Merkel tapped her to be gen­eral sec­re­tary — the No. 2 job in the party — in a move widely seen as an ef­fort to groom her for na­tional lead­er­ship. Be­fore that, Kram­pKar­ren­bauer had been state premier in the tiny west Ger­man re­gion of Saar­land, where she was known for work­ing across party lines and earned wide­spread ap­proval.

She is an ob­ser­vant Catholic who is con­ser­va­tive on some so­cial is­sues, in­clud­ing in her op­po­si­tion to same-sex mar­riage. But she has also cham­pi­oned women’s rights and con­tin­ued to pur­sue a high­oc­tane po­lit­i­cal ca­reer while raising three chil­dren. In Saar­land, a once-wealthy coal min­ing re­gion that has fallen on hard times, she was con­sid­ered a strong ad­vo­cate for worker pro­tec­tions.

In a fiery speech mak­ing her pitch for the party lead­er­ship, Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer urged the CDU to be true to its val­ues and not merely re­act to pro­pos­als of the far-right.

“The ques­tion of what the fu­ture looks like, whether in the com­ing years we have even more pop­ulists, whether the E.U. holds to­gether or falls apart, whether we have an in­ter­na­tional world or­der with­out rules that’s gamed by ego­tists and au­to­crats . . . All of that is a threat,” she said. “But the an­swer doesn’t lie in our stars. It lies with us.”

At a time of grow­ing po­lit­i­cal frag­men­ta­tion in Europe, she called the CDU “the last uni­corn in Europe — the last large re­main­ing ‘peo­ple’s party.’ ”

The term is used in Ger­many to de­scribe broad-based move­ments of the cen­ter. But whether it still ap­plies has been up for de­bate: The CDU, which has gov­erned Ger­many for 49 out of the last 69 years and long en­joyed the back­ing of 40 per­cent or more of the pop­u­la­tion, has seen its sup­port shrivel to the high 20s.

That is still the most of any Ger­man party. But other par­ties once rel­e­gated to the fringe — in­clud­ing the far-right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) and the pro­gres­sive Greens — have seen their poll num­bers surge.

Merz had cam­paigned on a pledge to slash AfD sup­port in half, and some of his poli­cies, es­pe­cially on im­mi­gra­tion, had seemed specif­i­cally tar­geted at win­ning back CDU de­fec­tors to the far-right. Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, the CDU opted for in­cre­men­tal change over an ide­o­log­i­cal lurch.

If any­thing, Fri­day’s vote un­der­scored the po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity in Ger­many com­pared to other ma­jor Euro­pean pow­ers. As Bri­tain tears it­self apart over Brexit and France con­fronts ri­ots, Ger­many once again looks steady and cen­trist — even in a year of un­usual po­lit­i­cal up­heaval.

Merkel opted to stand aside as CDU leader af­ter dis­ap­point­ing elec­tion re­sults. When she stunned the Ger­man po­lit­i­cal world in Oc­to­ber by an­nounc­ing the move, it was widely seen as a gam­ble — one that could bring her ca­reer to a quick and in­glo­ri­ous end.

But Fri­day’s vote showed that Merkel still has clout. Be­fore the bal­lot­ing, she was treated to an af­fec­tion­ate good­bye, with party mem­bers wav­ing signs read­ing “Thanks, boss” and giv­ing her a stand­ing ova­tion that lasted more than nine min­utes.

“I wasn’t born as chan­cel­lor and party leader,” Merkel said in her fi­nal speech in the lat­ter job. “I am filled with one over­whelm­ing feel­ing: a sense of grate­ful­ness.”

While Merkel never pub­licly en­dorsed a suc­ces­sor, her pref­er­ence for Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer was widely known.

And in her speech, Merkel sub­tly sig­naled it: She cel­e­brated the party’s elec­toral vic­to­ries in Saar­land — where Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer was at the helm — and in­sisted that the CDU could not go back to what it had been be­fore the turn of the mil­len­nium.

If the tra­di­tion­ally minded Merz would have been a throw­back to an ear­lier era, Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer so­lid­i­fies the CDU’s trans­for­ma­tion un­der Merkel into a more mod­ern party that is ac­cept­ing of women in top roles.

With her vic­tory Fri­day, Ger­many is likely — though not cer­tain — to have a sec­ond fe­male chan­cel­lor.

That prospect was a source of de­light for some in the hall.

“I’m un­be­liev­ably happy,” said Katja Rathje-Hoffmann, a del­e­gate who backed Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer. “She is a mod­ern woman and she is able to unite the CDU.”

But in the mean­time, Merkel re­mains in charge — per­haps with more lat­i­tude to par­tic­i­pate in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs af­ter a year in which her fo­cus was pri­mar­ily on the do­mes­tic.

“I don’t ex­pect her to scale back,” said Olaf Wientzek, co­or­di­na­tor of Europe pol­icy at the CDUaligned Kon­rad Ade­nauer Foun­da­tion, “but to reen­gage with full force.”


An­negret Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer will take Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s spot as chair of the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union.

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