After Angela A New Leader in the Race to Succeed Merkel

For years, it was assumed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would seek to hand the reins of party leadership over to Ursula von der Leyen. But lately, a new face has emerged in the mix: Saarland Governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Saarland Governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
REUTERS

Saarland Governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer


On the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Élysée Treaty, the postwar friendship agreement between Germany and France, Angela Merkel is holding a speech on the future of the European Union. She's not fond of ambitious redesigns, she says, preferring a "vision of concrete steps" to bring the Continent closer together. She also says that the question as to when Germany will finally assemble a new government resonates far beyond the country's borders. The EU reform proposals made by French President Emmanuel Macron must finally receive a "robust German response."

But it wasn't the German chancellor who was offering up her analysis of the state of the EU last Monday in Saarbrücken. Rather, it was Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the Christian Democratic governor of Saarland, a state with fewer residents than the city of Cologne. But what she has to say about Germany and Europe is nevertheless interesting, particularly from Chancellor Merkel's perspective.

If Merkel gets her way, Kramp-Karrenbauer will be a member of her new cabinet in Berlin once she assembles a new government -- and she'll likely get an important portfolio like the Foreign Ministry or the Labor Ministry. The final decision, of course, hasn't been made yet; it depends on what portfolios the Social Democrats want control of if Merkel's conservatives succeed in assembling a coalition with the center-left party. But Merkel wants to give Kramp-Karrenbauer a platform so that the Saarland governor can present herself as the CDU's next hope to take over the Chancellery.

Merkel knows full well that the last phase of her political career has begun, particularly now that even members of her own party are looking ahead to a future without her. "When it comes time to assemble a government, people who have prospects in the post-Angela Merkel era must also be included," demanded Daniel Günther, the CDU governor of Schleswig-Holstein. He's not the only one in the CDU who shares that view.

Sources close to Merkel say she is not completely comfortable with her decision to run for a fourth term and knows that many of her confidants believe that this term should be her last. She is also aware that her critics from the conservative wing of the party are actively preparing for the post-Merkel era -- people like Jens Spahn, parliamentary state secretary in the Finance Ministry and an up-and-coming figure in the CDU.

Preserving Her Political Legacy

Merkel, for her part, would like to set the transition in motion, but only on her own terms. She wants to make sure that her successor, whomever that might be, preserves her political legacy - which Merkel sees as having modernized the CDU and making it electable for young people, women and urban dwellers. She doesn't want to see the conservatives surrounding Spahn roll everything back. And at the moment, Merkel trusts Kramp-Karrenbauer to be able to prevent such a reversal - more so, in any case, than Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who for many years had been seen as Merkel's most likely hand-picked successor. But Merkel has recently begun doubting that von der Leyen has what it takes to lead the CDU.

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has fallen out of favor with Merkel.
DPA

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has fallen out of favor with Merkel.

Chancellors, of course, don't really have the power to determine who their successor will be. But they can certainly give their favorite a boost. In contrast to von der Leyen, Kramp-Karrenbauer is extremely popular within the party, but she lacks experience at the national government level, nor does she have a post in Berlin to boost her profile. Merkel would like to help her with both shortcomings.

It's a project that Merkel has already initiated. During the preliminary coalition talks with the Social Democrats, which came to a successful conclusion earlier this month, Kramp-Karrenbauer was given a key role. She was the only CDU politician to be made chief negotiator in two different working groups, with responsibility for family policy as well as labor policy.

Merkel was extremely satisfied with her performance. The Saarland governor impressed the chancellor by continuing to take part in the negotiations even after suffering a neck injury in a car accident while driving to Berlin for the final round of talks. "If Kramp-Karrenbauer wants to come to Berlin, there is a place in the cabinet for her," says one senior CDU member.

But does she want to come?

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Kramp-Karrenbauer refuses to say much of anything when asked about her future plans. But behind the scenes, she has made initial preparations, including appointing Nico Lange as state commissioner for innovation and strategy - "to get Saarland ready for the future," as Kramp-Karrenbauer put it. His mandate is formulated such that he will be making frequent trips to Berlin.

That will provide Lange with plenty of opportunity to lay the groundwork in the capital for Kramp-Karrenbauer's move. Lange, 42, has never been known for his expertise on innovation or digital issues, but he does have excellent contacts within the CDU and knows who to call when something is needed.

A Berlin Neophyte

Lange spent many years working for the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the think tank closely associated with the Christian Democrats, writing analyses for the party leadership. CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber then appointed him to a commission tasked with drafting proposals for reforming the party. And after the CDU lost state elections in Baden-Württemberg in 2016, the party's state chapter head, Thomas Strobl, made sure to bring Lange along when he toured the state visiting local chapters. Lange, after all, has a reputation for being someone who knows how to deal with tricky situations -- a quality that might come in handy for a Berlin neophyte.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulating Saarland Governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer after state elections last March.
REUTERS

German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulating Saarland Governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer after state elections last March.

CDU leaders are certain that Kramp-Karrenbauer is interested in coming to Berlin and her move was even a focus of a meeting several weeks ago between CDU leaders and their counterparts in the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the CDU. Members of the CDU's national executive committee, of which Kramp-Karrenbauer is also a member, say that the Saarland governor began taking a more active role in the committee ahead of last September's general election. Her appearance last October at the national conference of the CDU's youth wing is considered a further indication of Kramp-Karrenbauer's political ambitions.

If Kramp-Karrenbauer had her way, though, her move to Berlin would not be immediate, according to her close party allies. She is apparently concerned that a full term in the German capital could eliminate much of the novelty surrounding her move. As such, she would prefer joining the cabinet next year after elections for the European Parliament, at which time it is speculated that Merkel's chief of staff Peter Altmaier, who is also from Saarland, will head to Brussels to become a member of the European Commission, thus opening up a spot in the cabinet. But in politics, it's not always possible to choose exactly when you take your next step up the career ladder.

Either way, Kramp-Karrenbauer is viewing her transfer to national politics systematically - an approach to politics that is reminiscent of Merkel's own. Her calm, matter-of-fact style is likewise similar to the chancellor. It is her strength, but also her weakness.

After many years in governments, parties often want a change in both tone and style. After the visionary Willy Brandt, the Social Democrats (SPD) opted for the more pragmatic Helmut Schmidt. The flamboyant Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, also of the SPD, handed the party reins to the fastidious Franz Müntefering. Merkel herself, a pastor's daughter who grew up in East Germany, inherited the party from the baroque, West German Catholic Helmut Kohl. Kramp-Karrenbauer, though, is something like a mini-Merkel at first glance.

Seen as a Virtue

At the same time, she has managed to establish independence from the chancellor on some issues. In 2000, when Kramp-Karrenbauer became the first woman to take over the Interior Ministry portfolio in a German state, she quickly gained the respect of the police force in Saarland due to her assertiveness. Merkel, by contrast, has never been particularly fond of the law-and-order wing of her party.

Furthermore, during the state election campaign in Saarland, Kramp-Karrenbauer announced early last year that her state would not be allowing Turkish politicians to make public appearances. The announcement came as politicians from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party were campaigning on behalf of a referendum designed to grant Erdogan even greater powers. It was a clear split from Merkel, who had been accused of coddling Erdogan out of fear that he might cancel the refugee treaty with the EU, which could have triggered a new wave of migrants coming to Germany. The fact that no Turkish politicians had actually planned to make an appearance in Saarland was beside the point: In the CDU, the ability to take advantage of a political issue as Kramp-Karrenbauer did is seen as a virtue.

Merkel values Kramp-Karrenbauer's independence. In January 2012, she dissolved her governing coalition in Saarland after just half a year in office. The coalition had matched the CDU, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), but Kramp-Karrenbauer had quickly grown weary of the FDP's amateurish performance. Merkel, for her part, had urged Kramp-Karrenbauer not to allow her frustration to get the better of her, arguing that new elections were potentially dangerous.

But Kramp-Karrenbauer stuck to her guns and was proven right. The CDU was able to increase its share of the vote in new elections while the FDP plunged well below the 5 percent hurdle necessary for representation in parliament. Since then, she has governed the state at the head of a coalition with the center-left SPD. Merkel also hasn't forgotten how Kramp-Karrenbauer was able to climb out of a seemingly insurmountable survey trough. Ultimately, she won the state elections in late March of last year with over 40 percent of the vote. It proved to be the first significant setback for Merkel's SPD challenger Martin Schulz - a setback from which he never recovered.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen
DPA

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen

For many years, it was considered a certainty within the Merkel camp that Ursula von der Leyen would one day stake her claim to the Chancellery. And Merkel initially was quite supportive of her ambition. It was, after all, Merkel herself who installed von der Leyen in her cabinet in 2005 after plucking her from Lower Saxony state politics.

Missed Opportunities

But in the years since, von der Leyen has proven disloyal on a handful of occasions. The most significant example came in spring 2013, when von der Leyen, who was labor minister at the time, sought to assemble a majority in the German parliament for a gender quota. But she did so behind Merkel's back and it is a breach of trust that the chancellor has never quite forgotten.

For Merkel, however, power structures are more important than personal sleights. Those wishing to get to the top of the CDU must build alliances within the party and establish their own team of loyal confidants. Merkel believes that one of von der Leyen's greatest shortcomings is her failure to have developed her own team.

There were plenty of opportunities to do so. When then-Lower Saxony Governor David McAllister lost state elections in 2013 and then resigned as leader of the CDU state chapter there, von der Leyen failed to secure the position for herself. Instead, she has weakened her standing through mistakes made at the Defense Ministry. After a handful of right-wing extremist soldiers were exposed last spring, for example, von der Leyen said that the entire Germany military, the Bundeswehr, had an "attitude problem," a statement that did nothing to endear her to the troops. And nobody in the CDU came to von der Leyen's aid - partly because many in the party are well aware of her tendency to blame others when things go wrong.

When the pollsters at the Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis asked CDU members in December who they could imagine taking over from Merkel, 45 percent supported Kramp-Karrenbauer. Only 31 percent were for von der Leyen, behind even Spahn, who is only 37 years old.

Merkel still sees von der Leyen as an ally in the fight against a rightward shift in the Christian Democrats and she wants to keep her as a cabinet member. But she no longer believes that von der Leyen will be able to get a majority to support her.

A Strategy of Polarization

Spahn, meanwhile, despite Merkel's belief that he is one of the most intelligent and combative politicians of his generation, is the chancellor's best-known antagonist within the CDU. His preferred strategy is polarization and he has been vocal in his rejection of Merkel's preferred strategy of soothing the political competition to sleep. Furthermore, she is bothered by his persistent need to be at the center of attention. Mostly, though, she worries that he wants to lead the CDU back to the right, thus destroying what she sees as the greatest achievement of her tenure.

Merkel detractor Jens Spahn
Getty Images

Merkel detractor Jens Spahn

Spahn's future prospects depend heavily on whether Merkel offers him a cabinet post. But close confidants of the chancellor say that Merkel hasn't yet decided what he will be offered. And sometimes, it seems as though Spahn is doing all he can to ensure that he won't be chosen at all. When the results of the preliminary coalition talks with the SPD were presented to senior conservatives two weeks ago, Spahn grumbled that the agreement was the same as the one hammered out four years ago, just more expensive. "I thought we were going to do something new," he said.

Even some of Spahn's closest allies found the comment unnecessary. But it is utterances like that which have led Merkel to doubt whether she should give Spahn a seat at the cabinet table.

They also make it clear that Spahn isn't yet ready for the job as party chairman or as chancellor. As yet, he has no experience as a government minister. Which means that if he isn't named to the cabinet now, he wouldn't be well placed if Merkel were to stand down ahead of the next general election in 2021. That would be regrettable for Spahn, but not necessarily for Merkel.

Instead of Spahn, she is considering naming Julia Klöckner to the cabinet, the head of the state CDU chapter in Rhineland-Palatinate. Such an appointment has the advantage of allowing Merkel to claim that she is continuing to modernize the party. And during the campaign, she promised to name women to half of the cabinet positions under her party's control. Because Education Minister Johanna Wanka has announced her intention to withdraw from politics, there is a need to find more up-and-coming women politicians - a situation that is making Spahn nervous.

Furthermore, other options that the Spahn camp has discussed, such as him being named CDU general secretary, are unlikely. Merkel confidants say such an appointment is highly unlikely.

Whether Kramp-Karrenbauer ultimately goes to Berlin is also dependent on the portfolios that the CDU manages to secure as coalition negotiations progress. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs would certainly be an attractive option, particularly given her experience in these fields. Even better, though, would be the Foreign Ministry, a portfolio that would allow Kramp-Karrenbauer to raise her profile both at home and abroad. Furthermore, foreign ministers tend to have high approval ratings in Germany, making it a nice launch pad for an even higher calling.

But Merkel knows that the entire strategy could ultimately backfire. There are plenty of examples from Germany's political past of experienced state governors finding the lights too bright on the national stage. Plus, as well liked as she is in Saarland, it will no doubt take Kramp-Karrenbauer some time to introduce herself to the rest of the country. And not everybody in northern German will be immediately taken by her regional accent. On the other hand, it is an accent that has been heard in the Chancellery before. Helmut Kohl, who governed for 16 years, hailed from not too far away.

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