Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaks with a delegate at a federal congress of the CDU in Hamburg in December 2018
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer at a federal congress of the CDU in Hamburg in December © Getty

Germany’s next Bundestag elections are not due until 2021. But Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was chosen on Friday to succeed Angela Merkel as leader of the ruling Christian Democrats, should start planning now. From the small western state of Saarland, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer has yet to build a distinctive national profile and is almost unknown on the global stage. Yet she may be called upon, even before 2021 if Ms Merkel decides to leave office earlier than promised, to lead the country that plays an indispensable role in upholding Europe’s democratic values, prosperity and stability.

The CDU’s leadership campaign exposed deep rifts in the party between those who favour a turn to a more robust conservatism and those who hew to Ms Merkel’s centrist policies. Despite holding somewhat more conservative views than Ms Merkel on issues such as migration and same-sex marriage, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer belongs to the CDU’s moderate, social welfare wing. As chancellor, she would undoubtedly be a reassuring figure to Germany’s EU partners. But there remain question marks over whether she would be bolder than the cautious Ms Merkel in pursuing necessary economic reforms at home and trying to strengthen the eurozone’s architecture.

As was evident during the campaign, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s views make her an object of suspicion to those CDU politicians and activists who fear she will not distinguish the party enough from the Social Democrats, its longtime coalition partners at national level. In their opinion, the centrism espoused by Ms Merkel, and apparently to be continued by Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, will leave the CDU vulnerable to voter-stealing efforts by Alternative for Germany on the populist right, by the Greens in the progressive middle and by the pro-business Free Democrats.

However, rather than sniping at her from within, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s critics should help her heal the party’s splits. The same applies to the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s more rightwing Bavarian sister party. Although the decline in popular support for the CDU/CSU has been less serious than for the Social Democrats, the fact remains that the 2017 Bundestag elections saw the centre-right bloc plunge to its worst result since the Federal Republic’s creation in 1949. Since then, policy disputes and personality clashes within and between the CDU and CSU have damaged both parties’ standing and have almost brought down the “grand coalition” in Berlin.

Unless they overcome their quarrels and rally behind Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU and CSU risks tarnishing the centre-right’s impressive record of holding the chancellorship for all but 20 years since the rebirth of German democracy. This will require compromises on the part of Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer and her doubters. To the extent that she moves in their direction on migration, national identity and business-friendly reforms, they should wholeheartedly endorse her leadership and accept that, as a champion of the balanced German model of welfare capitalism, she is more in tune than rightwing purists with the instincts of German society.

Above all, the CDU must recognise it is time to move beyond the Merkel era of seemingly permanent “grand coalitions”. These have formed three of Germany’s last four governments and have opened up too much space for the poisonous politics of the nationalist right. The Social Democrats would also benefit from no longer being perceived as the CDU’s lapdog. In a climate of sharper competition between centre-right and centre-left, German democracy would be the winner.

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