'Mini-Merkel': new leader chosen to replace Germany's Angela Merkel

The victory of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (widely known as AKK), an ally of Merkel who is currently the party’s general secretary, is likely to ensure a longer and more seamless transition of power in Germany.

She narrowly defeated Friedrich Merz, a prominent critic of Merkel who had told the party it was time for a “fresh start” for the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU).

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has been dubbed the mini-Merkel.
APAnnegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has been dubbed the mini-Merkel.

AKK’s message, in contrast to her opponent, was that the party should have the courage to stay its course rather than try harder to appeal to voters who have peeled off to support far-right policies and politics.

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The win makes AKK the most likely candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor, possibly before the next elections.

Candidates Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz, right, leave the podium after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer won the vote.
APCandidates Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz, right, leave the podium after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer won the vote.

The CDU is the biggest party in terms of total electoral support in Germany, though in recent elections it lost votes to the far-right AfD and to the Greens.

In late October, after another poor electoral performance by the CDU in a regional poll, Merkel announced she would not seek re-election after 18 years as CDU chairwoman.

She said she intended to stay as chancellor until the next election in 2021. If AKK had not succeeded her, there would have been a much stronger push for her to leave earlier.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, Merkel’s main opponent inside the cabinet and a critic of her decision to welcome a million asylum seekers in 2015, came a distant third in the leadership poll, which went to a second round and eventually saw AKK beat Merz by 51.8 per cent to 48.2 per cent of party members.

CDU members gave Merkel a ten-minute standing ovation after her final speech as party head.

She received a retirement present: the baton used to conduct Beethoven’s 9th at the G20 meeting last year.

In her retirement speech Merkel encouraged her members to stay true to their party’s beliefs and resist current political tides.

“Whether it’s the rejection of multilateralism, the return to nationalism, the reduction of international cooperation to deal-making or threatened trade wars… hybrid warfare, destabilisation of societies with fake news or the future of our EU – we Christian Democrats must show in the face of all these challenges what we’ve got,” she said.

“I wasn’t born chancellor or party chairman. I always wanted to bear my offices with dignity and to give them up with dignity.”

Some in the crowd held up signs saying “thanks, boss”.

Merkel has led Germany since 2005, and during that time her party has tracked towards the political centre. Legacy policies she can point to include more generous family leave, an end to the use of nuclear power and an end to military conscription.

Though she has never explicitly endorsed a successor, Merkel gave several broad hints she preferred AKK.

AKK, 56, is seen as similar to Merkel in many ways, with centrist and conciliatory instincts. However she is more socially conservative.

In her speech to members before the vote, she appealed to them to reject politics of fear.

“We must have the courage to stay the course against the zeitgeist,” she said.

Merz this week won the valuable backing of parliamentary speaker and former finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, another man with a political axe to grind against Merkel.

He told members they had to send out a “signal for a fresh start and renewal” after 18 years with Merkel at the helm.

But party members were likely to have been swayed by polls that show the country as a whole views AKK much more favourably than Merz.

One Bundestag MP, Armin Schuster, tweeted: “I have been a Merz follower for many years, but I will choose AKK. She has honestly earned it within the party, she is closer to the people and – she will win elections! That is the decisive criterion for the country, for the Union and for me.”

Sydney Morning Herald