Picking Kramp-Karrenbauer as Leader, German Conservatives Choose Continuity

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, with Chancellor Angela Merkel behind her on stage, was elected as leader of the German conservative party on Friday. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has sometimes been called “mini-Merkel,” although she has tried recently to distance herself from the chancellor.CreditCreditThomas Lohnes/Getty Images

HAMBURG, Germany — German conservatives opted for continuity rather than change on Friday, electing Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, an ally of Angela Merkel, to succeed Ms. Merkel as their party leader and giving her the inside track on becoming the next chancellor of Germany.

The vote by delegates of the Christian Democratic Union is the first concrete step into the post-Merkel era after her 18 years as leader of Europe’s biggest conservative party and 13 years as chancellor. For many conservatives, it also served as an endorsement of Ms. Merkel’s legacy.

By choosing Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, a woman whose modest leadership style is reminiscent of the chancellor’s, the party signaled a desire to keep to the centrist, socially conscious course set by Ms. Merkel. As party leader, she is likely to become the Christian Democrats’ candidate for chancellor during the next general election, now scheduled for 2021.

Fighting back tears as she took to the stage after winning a runoff vote, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer briefly thanked the members for their trust. Then, in a gesture demonstrating the team spirit she had pledged to maintain, she invited her two challengers to join her on the stage.

In her barnstorming speech to delegates before the vote, she repeatedly returned to the need to maintain the cohesiveness and inclusiveness that had kept Germany’s largest political party in power for 50 of the past 70 years.

“For me, there is only one Christian Democratic Party and it has to stay that way,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said to resounding applause, referring to it as a “unicorn” on the European political landscape for its ability to include members from all walks of life.

Friday’s vote increased Ms. Merkel’s chances of maintaining the current coalition government with the center-left Social Democrats, and completing what she says will be her final term in office, though it could also leave the Christian Democrats deeply split.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s chief rival for party leadership, Friedrich Merz, an outspoken millionaire and former rival of Ms. Merkel’s, had been seen as the candidate who would restore the party’s conservative values and would lure voters back from the far-right party Alternative for Germany.

Although he had brought crowds to their feet in regional party congresses as the candidates presented themselves to the party base over the past three weeks, on Friday he appeared unusually nervous and wooden in his delivery.

Friedrich Merz, center, who quit politics in 2009 and became a millionaire in the world of finance, has been called the “anti-Merkel” by German news outlets.CreditMarkus Schreiber/Associated Press

No one won a majority in the first round of voting, with Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister also in the running. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer defeated Mr. Merz in a runoff, 517 to 482.

Afterward, he congratulated his opponent and appealed to conservatives to “throw your full support behind our new party leader.” Mr. Merz, who entered the running in the fall after nearly a decade in finance, was seen by his detractors as divisive for the party, with his more pro-market views.

Armin Laschet, the premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s biggest state said the vote for Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer “shows that there is a great continuity in German politics. There is no fundamental wish to change things.”

And, he said, it sends a “strong signal” to women to have another woman succeed Ms. Merkel.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s moderate leadership style carried her from a six-year term as governor of Saarland to her election early this year as the party’s general secretary, the second-ranking position. Praised by party members as a competent, tough politician, she displayed her ability to reach out to the party’s base during her nearly 10 months in that role.

She also demonstrated an aptitude for working with Ms. Merkel, who stopped short of formally endorsing her but dropped enough hints to make clear that Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer was the chancellor’s preferred candidate.

As they took turns addressing party delegates on Friday, Mr. Merz appeared unusually dispassionate and wooden, while his opponent delivered a fiery, emotional speech.

“Today is a special day for me,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer — often referred to by her initials, A.K.K. — said onstage before the packed meeting of delegates in the northern city of Hamburg. Recalling her decision to join the Christian Democrats in 1981, she called on members to have courage.

“The question will be whether we are willing to leave our comfort zone and have the courage to do what the people of this country are waiting for,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said, citing infrastructure, national and European security, improved education and stable pensions.

During the campaign for party leadership, Mr. Merz, 63, pledged to halve the support for Alternative for Germany, which attracted about one million voters in last year’s inconclusive national election, becoming the third-strongest force and the leading opposition party in Parliament.

That was not enough to persuade the 1,000 party delegates gathered to select the new party leader. Daniel Günther, the governor of Schleswig-Holstein, voted for Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer and had encouraged others to do so.


“Today is a special day for me,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said onstage before the packed meeting of Christian Democratic delegates in the northern city of Hamburg. Party attendees watched the results of the vote on a video screen.CreditDavid Hecker/EPA, via Shutterstock

“She is able to maintain the Christian Democrats as a centrist party that includes people from different ends of the spectrum,” Mr. Günther said. “For me, that means not ignoring any of the various wings, including those for social policy as well as pro-market economic and conservative wings.”

On the campaign trail, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has sometimes been called “mini-Merkel,” fought to distance herself from the chancellor. She highlighted her service to the party over more than three decades, her Roman Catholic faith and her demonstrated ability to win tough elections.

“In the past weeks, I have read a lot about how I am. Mini. A copy. More of the same,” she told delegates on Friday.

“Today, I stand before you as I am, a mother of three children who knows how hard it can be to combine family and career,” she said. She is a former governor, as well as a former state minister for security, education and social affairs. She is, she said, someone “who spent 18 years learning to lead.”

“There is nothing ‘mini’ about me,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer insisted.

In surveys of party members and voters in general, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer consistently drew more support than Mr. Merz. She was seen by many people as more sympathetic, down-to-earth and in touch with voters.

Political analysts had noted that delegates would base their choice not only on the running of the party but also with an eye to the leader’s chances in the next general election.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer came out hard in the campaign against Ms. Merkel’s relatively open policy toward refugees. She called for migrants found guilty of attacking women to be extradited immediately, and for a strengthening of detention centers where those applying for asylum are held until their legal status is decided, making it easier to turn back those who are rejected.

After the vote, though, she turned and hugged Ms. Merkel, who hours before had given her final speech to the congress, marking the end of an era. It was a particularly emotional day for many women delegates.

“I wasn’t born as chancellor and party leader,” Ms. Merkel said, as party members waved signs reading “Thank you Ms. Chairwoman” from the audience.

“I am filled with one overwhelming feeling, a sense of gratitude,” Ms. Merkel said. “It was a great joy and a great honor for me.”

Follow Melissa Eddy and Katrin Bennhold on Twitter: @meddynyt and @kbennhold.


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