Even for Germans, the name of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer doesn’t roll easily off the tongue — that’s why she’s usually referred to as AKK. And no, AKK is not 47, but 56, a lawyer and Political Science graduate from a small town in Saarland, who has put Puttlingen on the map of federal politics there — and on the radars of European Union (EU) leaders.
Last Friday, Kramp-Karrenbauer was selected by Christian Democrats in Germany to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel as party leader, a choice that both assured Merkel’s political legacy and made the leadership transition smooth and predictable — about as exciting as knowing that there’s a jack-in-the-box about to pop as soon as the lid is opened.
Kramp-Karrenbauer is moderate, unflashy and whose consensus style almost matches that of Merkel, the de factor leader of Europe and the first female German chancellor who will have led her nation at the highest level for 16 years when she steps aside before the next federal elections in 2021. Kramp-Karrenbauer now becomes the de facto chancellor-in-waiting, though it may be several years before she ascends to the nation’s top office. Merkel has said she intends to stay until 2021. And with her ally as party leader, that is at least possible.
Merkel’s hold on power would have been dramatically weaker had the party picked the other main contender, 63-year-old corporate titan Friedrich Merz. He had represented for many supporters a chance to return the CDU to its conservative roots after 18 years in which Merkel has steered the party to the centre — and even the left.
Annegret Kramp, as she was then, entered politics in 1984 when she won a council seat in her native Puttlingen — with a population 20,000 — 30 minutes’ drive from the French border. She battled her way up past conservative, older men: CDU grandees, party colleagues, and even the police chiefs and state prosecutors who were dismissive when she became state interior minister in 2000.
She has a sharp political mind with a knack for political polemic, if it serves a political end — all with an unselfconscious regional German accent and a penchant for a turn of phrase that no doubt emanates from her profound belief in herself and her proven leadership abilities in Saarland. One fiery speech last February, containing a spontaneous aside that has since become her political motto: “I can, I want and I will.”
Those who know her insist that her connection to Puttlingen is the reason for the down-to-earth nature and strong sense of reliability for which she is well-known.
Married to a mining engineer with whom she has three children — she herself is the fifth of six children — Kramp-Karrenbauer faced the challenge during the leadership battle of both wanting to appear to support Merkel and signalling that she would take the party in a new direction. What she has said about the Merkel era became something of a slogan for her candidacy: “One cannot arbitrarily continue in the same vein, neither can one dismiss it.”
While she generally supported Merkel’s open-door policy towards migrants, she has admitted that grave mistakes have been made, and has pushed for a ban on refugees with criminal convictions being allowed back into Germany. She has pledged to listen to the party more than Merkel did, and to be less passive, and more willing to challenge the status quo, repeatedly using the complex phrase “the normative power of facts” to argue: “I will be less inclined to accept as immutable fact that things are the way they are.”
At the same time, without being denounced as a populist hardliner, she promised regional delegates that criminal asylum-seekers should be deported at speed and “never allowed set foot again on European soil” — even if they come from war-torn Syria.
Similarly, though pitching herself as the centrist continuity candidate, her pitch to CDU conservatives is obvious: In the final regional conference in Berlin, she argued that “an abortion is not a gallbladder” operation and stands by a 2015 remark mentioning same-sex marriage in the same breath as paedophilia and polygamy.
Like Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer owes her rise to hard work, being underestimated and her love for calculated risk.
In January 2012, a year after taking over as Saar state premier, she swapped coalition partners in office, then called — and won — a snap election. Merkel was infuriated by the regional leader’s risk-taking, but was impressed by the results and, last February, lured her to Berlin as CDU secretary general.
Kramp-Karrenbauer says she was taken aback when Merkel announced at the end of October she would not be standing again. They were said to be reasonably close, and the lack of communication between the two raised eyebrows at the time. Until she praised her Saarland win hours before the vote in her valedictory speech to the CDU as party leader, Merkel had done nothing to show her support of AKK during the campaign.
As both women will have been aware, an endorsement from Merkel — already associated with an era from which the party is desperate to move on — may well have done more to hinder than to help her chances.
Nevertheless, Kramp-Karrenbauer won last Friday’s vote at the CDU’s annual convention in the second round of balloting, eking out a bare majority in a closely divided party. The final tally was 517 votes for Kramp-Karrenbauer and 482 for Merz after a third candidate, Health Minister Jens Spahn, was eliminated.
The result electrified the hall and prompted an unusual display of elation from a normally stoic Merkel: She welcomed Kramp-Karrenbauer to the stage with a hug and squeezed her shoulders, all the while beaming. Yes, Merkel’s legacy is safe. Mostly.
— With inputs from agencies