Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will succeed Angela Merkel as the leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union, but Merkel will continue as German Chancellor for the time being. Robert Ledger and Peter Finn write that in the short-term, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s success has reduced the likelihood of imminent elections, but the German party system is currently in a state of flux and there could be turbulent times ahead for the CDU’s new leader.

On 7 December, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as its new leader. She will succeed Angela Merkel, who has headed the party since 2000. Kramp-Karrenbauer, also known as AKK, is closely associated with Merkel, to the extent she is sometimes referred to condescendingly as ‘Mini Merkel’.

Yet, rather than Merkel – who has been Chancellor since 2005 – stepping away from front line politics, she is going to continue as the German Chancellor, with the aim of seeing out another three years in the position before stepping down. If Merkel manages to stay in power for this long, she will have seen off at least three US presidents (four if Trump is voted out of office in 2020 or, as some have argued he may do, walk away), at least three UK Prime Ministers (a number that could quickly become four) and four French Presidents.

Just as importantly, this period has, among other events, seen the credit crunch and its related global financial crisis and the seemingly never quite receding Eurozone turbulence, the rise of populism, the UK Brexit vote, the continued rise of China and India, and the Arab Spring and the tumultuous civil and regional wars which followed in its wake.

An ominous precedent

In the short-term, Merkel’s decision appears a sound one. Indeed, she remains surprisingly popular for a leader who has been in power for well over a decade. Yet, three years, as the saying almost goes, is a long time in politics. Something aptly demonstrated by the fact that it is only two and a half tumultuous years since the Brexit vote and less than two years since Trump became US president.

Though formally the job of party leader and Chancellor are separate, given the convention for them generally to be held by the same person within the largest party in Germany, the potential for instability seems strong. One precedent is not encouraging for Merkel. A similar situation occurred in February 2004 when the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) removed Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from his position as party leader, outraged by his ‘Agenda 2010’ labour reforms. Schröder staggered on for another 17 months before losing a vote of confidence in the Bundestag and then a general election, to Merkel.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Credit: Bundesrat | Henning Schacht (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It should also be noted that the figure who replaced Schröder in 2004 as SPD leader was Franz Müntefering, who barely registers today as a footnote in history and did not stand as the party’s candidate for Chancellor in 2005. The SPD has consistently fielded candidates for Chancellor that have not been the party’s chairperson. Therefore, AKK is not necessarily guaranteed to stand in the next election or to be automatically nominated as candidate for Chancellor. The CDU, however, as well as its Bavarian conservative sister party the CSU, has been far less likely than the SPD to put forward a candidate for Chancellor who is not one of the party leaders.

Having two people at the helm of the party (even if Merkel has officially stepped down as head of the CDU) appears, at the very least, awkward. Three years is a long time to operate as a lame duck, with all the inevitable manoeuvring and intrigue it would lead to, especially for someone who has been as consistently powerful and influential as Merkel has been. Is it likely she will be able to fully distance herself from attempting to remain the de facto leader of a party she has formally led for almost two decades? Moreover, what happens if Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer disagree over policy, politics or the future direction of the CDU?

The chances of such splits may appear slight now, but what happens as the date of Merkel’s departure nears, and the inevitable seepage of her influence it will cause, and Kramp-Karrenbauer, who will surely want to define herself as separate from Merkel to help secure her political future, and others are manoeuvring to replace her as Chancellor? Or what if a catastrophe of the magnitude of 9/11, the financial crash or the Eurozone debt crisis occurs? Given Germany’s importance on the world stage (portrayed, rightly or wrongly, as the de facto leader of the EU), Berlin’s preoccupation with political succession will likely increase uncertainty throughout the region, as others seek to fill a power vacuum.

State of flux

The German press had in fact been focusing on the candidacy of Friedrich Merz in recent weeks. Merz, who initially departed German politics for a lucrative job in business a decade ago, rose like a phoenix after Merkel’s announcement to step down. He was endorsed by former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, and is clearly a man of the right, as was the other contender, current Health Minister Jens Spahn. AKK appeared to represent a more centrist and socially liberal continuity with Merkel, and has some governing experience, albeit as state president in tiny Saarland.

Traditionalists in the CDU worry that by electing Kramp-Karrenbauer, more space will open up on the party’s right flank for the populist, increasingly nativist, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The counter argument to this would be the Bavarian CSU, whose hapless leader Horst Seehofer tried precisely that same strategy, taking an increasingly illiberal line towards refugees and migrants, only to haemorrhage votes to both the AfD and the Greens in October’s state elections. Most recent opinion polls have shown the AfD polling higher than the SPD, one of Europe’s oldest political parties. Meanwhile, the Greens are at an all time high at around 20%, only single digits behind the once dominant CDU/CSU. Certainly, German politics is currently in a state of flux.

The election of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer may have reduced the likelihood of imminent elections. She is a key ally of Merkel. Whereas the well-known animosity between Merz and Merkel would have made a confrontation highly likely. Yet, the SPD is desperate to reverse its seemingly terminal decline in popularity. The German press consistently state that SPD leader Andrea Nahles is looking for a way to extricate the party from the current ‘GroKo’ (Grand Coalition). Should this transpire, Merkel would then need to seek a minority government coalition with the Greens or an early election. Certainly, the Merkel era is in its final stages. Despite the elevation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to CDU leader, who and what follows Merkel is still an open question.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Robert Ledger – Schiller University 
Robert Ledger is a Visiting Researcher (Gastwissenshaftler) in the History Seminar at Goethe University and also teaches at Schiller University Heidelberg and the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management.

Peter Finn  Kingston University
Peter Finn is a Lecturer in Politics and PhD candidate at Kingston University.

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