Adenauer, Erhard, Kiesinger, Barzel, Kohl, Schäuble, Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer. The list of the party chairmen and chairwomen of the Christian Democrats in Germany contains a number of luminaries who have shaped German and European history.
The last of these, newly crowned on 7 December, is a tongue twister even for German commentators, though fortunately Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer finds herself most often shortened to AKK. And AKK looks set to be the next Federal Chancellor, the confidante and in some ways the protégée of the departing chair of the party, Chancellor Merkel.
Much has been made of the possibility that AKK is just a clone of Angela Merkel, a soft-spoken, somewhat cool politician who supports Frau Merkel’s centrist agenda, opposing any “lurch to the right”, to take on the AFD in Eastern Germany, a sort of “steady as she goes”, “Die Mitte” chancellor unable to provide new solutions to the growing list of issues of discontent with the current CDU and Grand coalition.
An uninspiring leader faced with uniting a rather split CDU, many of whose delegates are keen that the party creates clear “blue water” and stops emphasising its dogma of “Die Mitte”. Ultimately, her victory over the overtly right-of-centre Friedrich Merz to become chair was a narrow one, and Merz, who has so far refused another official role under AKK, will be a thorn in the side of the new party chair.
Don’t underestimate AKK. A brilliant politician in her own right, she manoeuvred herself not only to the top of her very conservative party in Saarland, but then succeeded in becoming Minister-President of a state traditionally associated with the SDP, and latterly with the fiery figure of Oskar Lafontaine.
The same political “nous” has allowed her to position herself as the frontrunner for the Chancellorship, edging out not only Merz and Spahn, but crucially also winning the “long race” against Ursula Von der Leyen, hotly tipped to be Merkel’s successor just five years ago.
AKK also represents a conclusion to an unusual period for the CDU and a reversion to tradition. Catholic and socially conservative (an opponent of same sex marriage), she represents the heartland of the post-war CDU on and to the west of the Rhine. Born very near the French border in the historically contested region of the Saarland, she speaks French and is a Francophile (her appointment will go down well in Paris).
Unlike the cosmopolitan Von der Leyen, who largely grew up in Brussels and is polyglot, she is deeply rooted, a noticeable Saar accent inflecting her German, with a down-to-earthness associated with the historically industrial, steel and mining community of the Saar. She has a talent of not upsetting people unnecessarily, getting on with fellow party members and being a safe choice – but one who knows how to defeat her opponents.
In her speech to the party congress and subsequent interview for German TV, she did not shy away from the challenges facing party and country: growing economic equality, energy and climate change policy, digitisation, dual citizenship, immigration.
She is less well known for her foreign policy acumen, and spoke little on the foreign policy and EU / Eurozone challenges facing Germany – though her views on the Ukrainian issue are known to be largely consonant with that of the Chancellor.
AKK’s challenges are obvious. The country is unhappy with the Grand Coalition, a recent ARD (roughly the BBC equivalent) survey suggesting only a third of voters are happy with the work of the Coalition government. The same survey suggested that although the CDU remains the leading party in the polls, its coalition partner SPD has sunk to just 14 per cent, with the far-right AFD solid at a worrying 14 per cent and the Greens riding high at 20 per cent.
So her ability to engage and potentially coalesce with a party not traditionally associated with the CDU at a federal level (though more and more at a local level) may prove crucial if she wants to re-energise the central ground.
The Greens, under new leadership, have declared themselves to be pragmatic and open to all conversations. If the future of the CDU is not to move distinctly to the right, then a radical shift in the centre, a repeat at the federal level of the remarkably successful black-green coalition in Baden-Württemberg, may be a way forward if the outcome of the 2021 election is similar to the current polls.
It was nearly the result of the 2017 election, had the Liberals not pulled out of the prospective “Jamaica coalition”. In her post-victory interview, AKK emphasised her support for an approach that was both good for business and the environment (a model that has worked well for the coalition in Stuttgart)
Many on the right of the CDU, the supporters of Merz, will be reluctant to engage still further with “Die Mitte”, let alone with the Greens. Next year, 2019, promises hotly contested elections in eastern states, and if the AFD continues to solidify its gains there, at the expense of the CDU, AKK will face immense pressure from within her party.
Much could still happen in the coming three years. It is increasingly doubtful that Angela Merkel will see out her term, and she may want to give AKK the chance to prove herself in government before contesting the 2021 election.
That gives her opponents perhaps no more than two years to stop her becoming the First Lady of Europe or to influence her politics to go right.
One thing is certain. “Steady as she goes” with the SDP is not working, if the polls are to be believed. And the crumbling SDP, the reluctant coalition partner, is unlikely to be a coalition partner again after 2021.