What Merkel’s Successor Will Mean for German Politics

Benner 2018 What Merkel’S Successor Will Mean For German Politics
Source: Bundesrat | Henning Schacht / Flickr
13 Dec 2018, 
published in
Foreign Affairs

Almost 2,000 journalists descended on Hamburg last week to witness a spectacle not seen since 1971: an open competition for the leadership of Germany’s most successful political party. The 1,001 delegates to the party congress of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had to choose the successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been party leader for 18 years before announcing in October that she would quit following a round of bad electoral showings and sinking poll numbers for her party. Although Merkel plans to remain chancellor until the next federal election in 2021, the delegates were aware they would be voting for not just a party chair but also Merkel’s likely successor as head of government. 

They chose Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU’s 56-year-old secretary-general and the former prime minister of Saarland. AKK, as she is known, beat Friedrich Merz, a 63-year-old millionaire corporate lawyer, by a razor-thin margin of 35 votes — 52 percent to 48 percent. A Merz victory would have signaled a return to the West German alpha males whom Merkel finished off one by one and a sharp conservative turn for the CDU. Kramp-Karrenbauer, meanwhile, was Merkel’s preferred heir and is seen as guaranteeing broad continuity in the CDU’s political positions and rhetorical style. 

Kramp-Karrenbauer takes power at a difficult time for the CDU. Since the 2017 election, her party and German politics at large have been more volatile than in decades. She needs to unite the CDU, help stabilize the shaky coalition government, sharpen her own political profile on domestic and foreign policy, fight four difficult regional elections in 2019, and prepare for a general election that could come as soon as next year. 

The Last Unicorn

In her speech at the party congress, Kramp-Karrenbauer called the CDU the last unicorn in Europe” — the last Christian democratic party to have preserved its status as a Volkspartei, a big tent with an appeal that cuts across society. The CDU unites three distinct elements: a labor wing, an economically liberal wing, and a conservative wing. Historically, the desire to gain and keep power has kept the party’s disparate elements together. Yet many CDU members found Merkel’s governing strategy, known as asymmetric demobilization,” irritating. Merkel’s approach was to match the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on the social policy front — in effect turning the CDU into a second social democratic party — and the Green party on the environmental front, by phasing out nuclear energy, for example. That way, so the calculus went, SPD and Greens voters would be less mobilized to go to the polls. Some of them might even vote for the CDU. In 2013, this strategy brought Merkel’s CDU close to an absolute majority. That victory — in the CDU there is no better tranquilizer than electoral success — kept many in the party who had misgivings about Merkel’s policies in line. 

The refugee crisis of 2015 ended that truce. Merkel’s decision not to close Germany’s borders led to the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) as a major force to the right of the CDU. The AfD now has representatives in every German federal and state parliament. A new cleavage, between open and closed on immigration, has come to dominate German politics. At the same time, bitter infighting between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has tarnished the CDU’s image as the party of competent government. In recent elections, the CDU lost ground to both the AfD and the Greens, the two forces with the clearest positions on the open-closed divide. Delegates at the CDU congress had to choose between two opposing visions of how to revive the last unicorn.

Merz would have taken the party to the right in the hope of winning back AfD voters. He castigated the CDU for having reacted to the rise of the AfD with a shrug.” He promised to halve the AfD’s vote share by adopting more conservative and economically liberal policies and a more polarizing rhetorical style. That would have moved the CDU away from social democracy and allowed for a renewed contest between the CDU and the SPD, which, stuck in an uneasy governing coalition and unable to differentiate itself from the CDU, has seen its poll numbers drop to historic lows.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, meanwhile, wants to stay the course on substance and style. Her proposed solution to the CDU’s woes is better governance. She argues that voters have lost trust in the ability of the state to deliver on everything from affordable housing to public transport to domestic security. That approach will leave less space for the SPD to distinguish itself from the CDU, making it harder to reignite political competition in the center. 

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s narrow margin of victory means she may have to compromise with the conservatives. During the campaign, in an effort to win over some of Merz’s supporters, she struck a deal with the conservative leader of the CDU’s youth wing, the 33-year-old Paul Ziemiak, under which he would become the party’s new secretary-general. Expect to see more of the same in the coming months. 

Developing an Agenda

Over the next year, Kramp-Karrenbauer will need to update the party’s machinery after years of neglect by Merkel, who turned the chancellery, not the party, into the key decision-making center. Kramp-Karrenbauer will also need to develop a distinct political agenda on domestic and foreign policy to sharpen her own political brand and bridge divides in the party. 

Above all, she will have to put an end to the CDU’s festering trauma over immigration. Over the past three years, the party has relitigated Merkel’s 2015 decision again and again. Kramp-Karrenbauer will need to find a way to move past that debate. She has already adopted tougher rhetoric than Merkel on protecting Europe’s external borders and sending back those deemed not to be in need of international protection. In the coming weeks, she plans to convene a workshop discussion’ on migration and security with experts and critics of migrant and refugee policies,” she told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

On the domestic policy front, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s socially conservative stance on issues such as gay marriage will help her reach out to the party’s conservative wing. She has also promised to develop the idea of a mandatory year of service for young Germans. Beyond crafting a narrative to unite a diverse Germany, her biggest domestic difficulty will be innovation policy. Germany needs to upgrade its industrial infrastructure and catch upon important future technologies, such as battery cells and artificial intelligence. In a break with the CDU’s economically liberal tradition, Kramp-Karrenbauer has advocated a strong government role in industrial policy. She wants Germany to stop being afraid of technological change and get excited about shaping the future. She has promised 5G high-speed mobile Internet at every milk can” to make sure rural areas do not get left behind. If she’s successful, her approach could move the national conversation away from migration policy and toward laying the foundations for Germany’s future economic success.

On foreign policy, Kramp-Karrenbauer has limited experience. So far, her positions have been squarely in the CDU’s mainstream. During her speech last week, she called for steps to make the eurozone crisis-proof and for the establishment of a European Security Council and a European army to allow the EU to better project power. She took a tough stance on Russian aggression but stopped short of calling for Germany to abandon the highly controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. A French speaker and former prime minister of Saarland, which has close ties to neighboring France, she is seen as naturally closer to Paris than Merkel is. But President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to boost France’s budget deficit in response to the gilets jaunes protests will make any French-German grand bargain on the EU less likely given the CDU’s strong aversion to budget deficits (at least those in other countries).

All Together Now

In the short term, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s win will help stabilize the coalition government. She will likely get along well with Merkel. Chastened by a loss in the Bavarian state elections, the CSU has steered away from its previous strategy of internal bomb throwing. The biggest uncertainty now comes from the SPD. Should its dismal poll numbers persist, more and more voices within the party will argue that it must abandon the coalition. According to the coalition deal, the SPD has a chance to review the agreement in late 2019, a moment that would offer a natural opportunity to leave. So Kramp-Karrenbauer needs to be ready to lead the CDU into an election by early 2020, if not earlier. 

Other important tests will come even sooner. Four major elections are scheduled for 2019: the EU parliamentary elections, in May, and regional elections in three east German states where the AfD is particularly strong. The results in those states may present Kramp-Karrenbauer with difficult choices. During last week’s party congress, the CDU passed a motion not to enter into any coalition or governing agreement with either the Left Party or the AfD. But polls in states such as Saxony have the combined vote share of those two parties at 45 percent. If the polls prove accurate, a refusal by the CDU to go into coalition with either party risks making those states ungovernable. And a coalition with either the Left or the AfD would risk tearing the CDU apart. Kramp-Karrenbauer is under enormous pressure to perform well in these elections. Nothing is as important in earning the respect of the CDU’s base as electoral success. If Kramp-Karrenbauer fails to stabilize the last unicorn, her tenure may be a short one. 

Earlier this year, Kramp-Karrenbauer gave up a comfortable job as prime minister in her home state for the more risky role of CDU secretary-general. In October, she had to throw herself into the race for party chair when Merkel resigned much earlier than anyone expected. Given Germany’s political volatility, Kramp-Karrenbauer may not have much time before her next big hurdle: a federal election. She will have little breathing room to develop a vision for the party and the country. Anyone looking to the present coalition government for renewed German leadership in Europe and on the global stage will be disappointed.

This commentary was originally published by Foreign Affairs on December 132018.