Germany’s Post-Merkel Power Fraus

The German chancellor's most likely successors are both women — but the similarities end there.

Andrea Nahles and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in Berlin, on March 12, 2018. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
Andrea Nahles and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in Berlin, on March 12, 2018. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

It shouldn’t surprise that Angela Merkel, as the leader of Germany’s biggest conservative party, has shied away from being called a “feminist.” But it’s indisputable that her three terms as chancellor (the fourth term began last week) have changed the lives of German women for good. Doors previously shut to them have been opened — nowhere more pronouncedly than in German politics itself.

Even as a new four-year term gets underway, the outlines of the post-Merkel era have already come into view. Germany’s cabinet has been stocked with new female faces, including atop both Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which means women are likely to lead the country for years to come. And nobody is better situated to compete to replace Merkel as chancellor four years from now than the SPD’s freshly installed leader, Andrea Nahles, and the CDU’s new general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

The two politicians — Nahles, 47, and Kramp-Karrenbauer, 55 — have been tasked by their respective parties to do what their male predecessors couldn’t: namely, stop the disintegration of Germany’s big-tent postwar establishment. In the September 2017 election, both parties chalked up record losses — the CDU with 33 percent of the vote (which includes its partner the Christian Social Union), the SPD with a lowly 21 percent — leaving them with few alternatives but to reluctantly join forces again in a “grand coalition,” for the third time since 2005. But this latest halfhearted, cobbled-together partnership will likely accelerate the trend. The SPD now stands at 19 percent in polls, just five points ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany. Two weeks ago, they were even at 15 percent a piece.

Both Nahles and Kramp-Karrenbauer clearly believe that they are equal to the generational task of pulling their parties out of their death spirals. Both are career politicos, practicing Catholics, and hail from small German towns along France’s borderlands just over a hundred miles from each other. Unlike Merkel, both are mothers: Kramp-Karrenbauer of three, Nahles of one. Like the present chancellor, both project an air of serious professionalism while also steering clear of the arrogant style common among the alpha males who still populate much of their respective parties’ ranks.

But that’s where their similarities stop.

Nahles is a known commodity on the German national stage, having nimbly climbed the party’s hierarchy since her entry into the SPD as an 18-year-old. Initially on the party’s anti-capitalist left, she has since mellowed without relinquishing her Attac membership. In the party’s executive since 1997, she has held half a dozen posts, though not one of them determined by popular vote. Most recently, from 2013 to 2017, she served as the federal minister for labor and social issues, where she muscled through the term’s most impressive socially minded legislation: a national minimum wage, pension reform, and safeguards for the temporarily employed. Today, her expertise and pragmatism are appreciated even in the CDU, which originally doubted that it could work with such a wild-haired rebel on anything.

The German media have dubbed Nahles “the boxer” — and not only because of her tenacity, toughness, and broad shoulders. In the thunderous speeches that have become her trademark — whether at union halls or at the SPD’s headquarters in Berlin — Nahles can look like a prize fighter in the ring, stabbing the air with clenched fists, her face grimaced and scarlet, eyes blazing.

Yet she also has a reputation for sometimes hitting too hard. Her diction can occasionally be churlish, almost adolescent. A few days after last year’s national vote, pledging vigorous opposition to a CDU-led government without the SPD, she said her party would deliver the CDU a “good smack in the kisser.” She had to apologize for that — and eat humble pie, too, when it became clear that another grand coalition was in the offing.

But Nahles has come as far as she has because Germans have largely been willing to chalk up her excesses to her working-class authenticity. Indeed, her father was a master mason, her mother a financial clerk. Nahles is a social democrat through and through, a true believer in social justice and respect for the working classes. Nahles was largely responsible for shoring up SDP support for the new coalition government, which many in the party, especially on the left, resisted. They argued that after hemorrhaging so much support the party needed a term in opposition, outside of Merkel’s long shadow, to renew itself. On a whirlwind journey across the country, Nahles won over reluctant comrades one local branch at a time.

In return, the SPD elected Nahles to the highest post in the historic party of August Bebel and Willy Brandt: the first chairwoman ever in the party’s 154-year history. “This is really something extraordinary,” explains Tina Hildebrandt, an editor at the weekly Die Zeit. “The SPD sees itself as the party of women’s rights, which historically it has been, but it’s always been a real men’s club. Men have always had the say. Nahles’s tenure is a kind of reality test for the SPD.”

Enter Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Nothing could be further from Nahles’s combustible temperament than the composed equanimity of Kramp-Karrenbauer, known in the CDU simply by her initials, AKK. In terms of demeanor, the smallish, unassuming woman with short-cropped hair and rectangle plastic glasses resembles her dispassionate mentor Merkel, who lured the trained lawyer from the small western state of Saarland, to the CDU headquarters in Berlin. While it had long been speculated that Merkel favored Kramp-Karrenbauer as her successor, her preference became public in February when the chancellor proposed her for CDU general secretary, a post second only to the party’s chairperson, currently Merkel herself. The party rubber-stamped the nomination with a 98.9 percent vote for Kramp-Karrenbauer, the highest result ever.

Kramp-Karrenbauer may hail from tiny Saarland, but she has done there what the CDU wants to do across the country: recover its losses and begin to grow again. Kramp-Karrenbauer had served in ministerial posts, including as Germany’s first female state-level interior minister, before she took over as state premier in 2011 and then led the CDU to an upset victory in 2012. But her meisterstuck came five years later when the CDU won 41 percent of the vote in state elections — the kind of number that her CDU peers in other states fantasize about.

Kramp-Karrenbauer is a pragmatic liberal by CDU standards, much in Merkel’s mode, and has rarely bucked the chancellor’s line. She stuck to Merkel through her greatest crisis when nearly a million refugees flowed into Germany in 2015 — and many CDU politicos abandoned Merkel for higher ground. Yet many perceive in the devout Catholic a more conservative cultural streak than in Merkel, whom, as a Protestant from the east, the CDU’s Catholic wing never entirely trusted. She’s against same-sex marriage and relaxing restrictive abortion laws. These traditionalist credentials secured her the unanimous election to general secretary. And in the run-up to the Turkish referendum last year, she banned Turkish politicians from campaigning in Saarland even though none had come or even planned to visit. She was consciously reaching out to conservative voters.

Though Kramp-Karrenbauer may currently be among the front-runners for Merkel’s job, it is historically atypical that German chancellors pick their successors. And it may be that Kramp-Karrenbauer is too much like Merkel, which has led observers to dub her a “mini-Merkel” and a “Merkel copy.”

“After 18 years with Merkel at the top, the CDU looks tired and drained,” the weekly Der Spiegel wrote. “There’s a yearning for something new, including in tone and style. It’s unlikely that Kramp-Karrenbauer can satisfy this yearning.”

In fact, both women — Kramp-Karrenbauer and Nahles — have gargantuan tasks in front of them. Neither in Germany nor elsewhere in Europe have men or women, leftists or conservatives, been able to halt the fragmentation of the headline postwar parties. Both have declared that there will be a broad debate within the party, followed by new programs that will inject purpose and esprit into the parties with which they identify so closely. Although both are women, neither is likely to emphasize women’s issues but instead will aim to go back to basics by shoring up their respective bases: cultural conservatives and the broader working classes.

But there’s no silver bullet, and driving this process forward when the parties are in power makes the endeavor all the more formidable. Moreover, Kramp-Karrenbauer and Nahles will have to cross their benefactors in office in Berlin if they are to overhaul the status quo.

Their ability to do this without sabotaging the grand coalition will determine whether they go on to lead their parties in the 2021 vote. Should they fail, their parties won’t necessarily fall back into the hands of the alpha males. Feminist or not, Merkel’s precedent has paved the way for an entire generation of female politicians in Germany.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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