Secretary General of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Peter Tauber, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Saarland State Prime Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer ahead CDU leadership meeting in Berlin, Germany, February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
German chancellor Angela Merkel (C) with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, new CDU secretary-general, who replaces Peter Tauber (L) © Reuters

German chancellor Angela Merkel gave her strongest hint yet as to who she sees as her potential successor by installing Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in the critical role of secretary-general of her Christian Democratic Union.

Her appointment comes as Ms Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005 and has led the CDU for the last 18 years, faces mounting pressure to infuse the party’s leadership with fresh blood and start planning her succession.

In tapping the moderate prime minister of the tiny state of Saarland, Ms Merkel is seeking to protect her political legacy from conservatives in the CDU who want to drag the party to the right. A close confidante of the chancellor, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer has long been known in the German media as the “mini-Merkel”.

Speaking at a joint appearance in the CDU’s Berlin headquarters, the chancellor said the party was going through a “difficult, turbulent time” after 12 years in power and needed a period of internal debate and reflection. Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer was, she said, the right person to lead this process.

The Saarland prime minister herself said she hoped to initiate a “programmatic renewal” and a “process of self-discovery” in the CDU, and would aim to come up with a new party programme for the next decade.

Conservatives in the CDU will be disappointed by the appointment. They had hoped the chancellor would name Jens Spahn, a deputy finance minister and leading right-winger, as the party’s new secretary-general.

But Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer was careful to reach out to Mr Spahn’s supporters, saying she wanted to “pick up impulses from the grass rooots” and from local party associations, particularly in the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg — a region where criticism of Ms Merkel’s leadership has been particularly strident.

The internal discussion “will be a broad process involving everyone in the party, and many outside of it,” she said.

Bringing Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer to Berlin will catapult a woman with little name recognition outside CDU circles to the highest echelons of national politics.

Her standing in the party was boosted last year when she won elections in Saarland and so became established as one of the CDU’s most successful regional performers.

The Saarland result confounded the expectations of pollsters, who had predicted a much stronger showing by the rival Social Democrats. The SPD had been experiencing a big revival under Martin Schulz, who had just been appointed leader, but the Saarland election stopped the party’s surge in its tracks.

In Berlin on Monday, Ms Merkel brushed off suggestions from journalists that Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer was now her official heir apparent. “It’s your privilege, that you’re always three steps ahead of everyone else,” she said. “We have our work cut out just managing the day-to-day stuff.”

Those disappointed that Mr Spahn is not the CDU’s new secretary-general still hope he might be awarded a post in the new cabinet. Ms Merkel said she would present the names of all CDU candidates for ministerial posts at next Sunday’s meeting of the party executive: and there are some expectations that Mr Spahn will be one of them.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer replaces Peter Tauber, a close Merkel ally who was loathed by conservatives and blamed by them for the party’s poor performance in September.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer will be formally elected at a Christian Democrat conference on February 26, at which delegates will debate the coalition agreement reached this month between the CDU, the CSU, its Bavarian sister party, and the SPD.

The deal is Germany’s best hope of ending the political deadlock that has dogged the country since elections in September. It must still be approved in a vote by the 460,000 members of the SPD, many of whom are reluctant to team up for another four years with Ms Merkel’s conservatives.

Path to party leadership

1962 Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer born in Saarland region of south-west Germany. Studied politics and law at universities of Trier and Saarbrücken.

1981 Joins Christian Democratic Union party and later voted on to one of region’s town councils.

1998 Elected to Bundestag but leaves later that year.

1999 Elected to Saarland parliament and occupies various regional ministries over the next decade.

2011 Becomes Saarland’s first female premier. CDU wins Saarland polls the following year and forms grand coalition with SPD.

2017 CDU wins Saarland elections again and forms new grand coalition.

2018 Nominated as CDU secretary-general, enhancing her chances of one day succeeding Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Get alerts on German politics when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article